While the White House celebrates the capture of accused Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, some of the people most involved in fighting terrorism in the United States are very, very worried.
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs rejected the suggestion that Shahzad's ability to travel to and from Pakistan, train with the Taliban, and place a car bomb in the heart of New York City represented a “systemic failure” of the nation's security agencies. (That's what President Obama said happened in the case of Detroit Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.)
Far from seeing failure, Gibbs saw reason for celebration. Shahzad was found quickly, he pointed out, with federal, state and local authorities working together. “So in many ways, we want to celebrate the success of, rightly so, of what law enforcement was able to do,” Gibbs said.
Tell that to Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. “These guys continue to be in denial,” Hoekstra says of the White House. “We're just a couple of smart people away from having 300, 400, 500 Americans killed. We have to express our appreciation to the FBI and the New York Police Department for capturing this guy, but our focus should be on how he got to Times Square and almost blew up an SUV loaded with explosives. That's not success in my book. Success would have been identifying this guy and making sure he didn't get to Times Square.”
Particularly troubling to Hoekstra and other committee Republicans is the confusion over what U.S. authorities did or did not know about Shahzad before the bombing attempt. The New York Times reported that in 2004, after Shahzad sold a condominium, agents from the government's Joint Terrorism Task Force questioned the buyer about Shahzad. There have also been reports that Shahzad was in e-mail contact with radical Islamists abroad and was on a Department of Homeland Security travel watch list. But still other reports say American officials knew nothing about him.
What's the truth? “It's hard to believe that with this guy's profile, he didn't leave some kind of footprints in Pakistan that you would hope that we picked up somewhere along the line,” Hoekstra says.
In other recent terrorist incidents, we learned from post-attack investigations that U.S. officials knew about the perpetrators beforehand. In the case of the Fort Hood shooting that left 13 people dead, officials knew Maj. Nidal Hasan had exchanged e-mails with radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al Awlaki, had written Internet postings justifying Muslim suicide bombings and had made troubling statements to co-workers. Yet even after Hasan went on his murderous rampage, President Obama was slow to publicly recognize the attack as Islamist violence and the Pentagon later tried to whitewash the story in its official report.
After the Christmas Day airline bombing attempt, we learned that U.S. officials had received a tip from Abdulmutallab's father about his son's extremist views, that Abdulmutallab's name had been in a terrorist database and that U.S. officials knew he had been trained in Yemen.
Now there is Shahzad. While the White House suggests that Americans “celebrate” his capture, Hoekstra and fellow Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are growing increasingly frustrated about what they see as the administration's refusal to tell Congress what's going on. On Wednesday, all nine Republican members sent a letter to Obama protesting what they called the White House's deliberate withholding of critical national security information.
“A clear pattern has emerged,” the GOP lawmakers wrote, “of the administration refusing to provide requested briefings or information or to engage with us despite repeated requests on issues such as Guantanamo, the Fort Hood attack, the Christmas Day attack, Yemen, critical issues involving the [foreign intelligence surveillance court], and now the Times Square attack.”
Obama has made a new approach to terrorism one of the key features of his presidency. He no longer calls the nation's anti-terror effort the War on Terror. He has reached out to the Muslim world. He has banned what the Bush administration called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He has vowed to close Guantanamo and supports granting full American constitutional rights to foreign terrorists.
Yet the attacks and attempted attacks continue. And everyone knows it was luck, and not anti-terror work, that prevented American deaths on Christmas Day and in Times Square. Republicans want to know what went wrong and are becoming increasingly angry at a White House that is keeping details of the case to itself.
Byron York, the Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blog posts appears on www.ExaminerPolitics.com ExaminerPolitics.com