Page last updated at 19:27 GMT, Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Obama takes flak over US plane bomb plot failure

By Richard Lister
BBC News, Washington

President Obama in Hawaii
President Obama said there had been a "systemic failure"

"If we can't catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his… underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the US embassy in Nigeria, a traveller whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn't check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in al-Qaeda sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who can we catch?"

That withering criticism of the Obama Administration's handling of national security was not penned by a Republican firebrand on a conservative blogsite but by the high-profile liberal columnist Maureen Dowd in the New York Times.

It underlines how the security crisis triggered by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is rapidly becoming a political challenge for President Obama, as America looks towards the mid-term Congressional elections in November.

If liberals are griping about the effectiveness of America's security net, Republicans are sensing that the Obama presidency is looking vulnerable on the issue that became their mantra in the Bush years.

Bad timing

It does not help the president that this attack happened as he was holidaying in Hawaii, and he waited three days to speak to the American people about the incident.

For the past year, terrorist incidents have been treated by and large as apolitical issues, that should not be muddied by politics. Not any more.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has released a statement talking about "the widespread perception that this administration and Democrat-held Congress don't have a strategy to confront the terrorist threat and keep America safe".

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney - a persistent and vocal critic of the current administration - told Politico that "we are at war and when President Obama pretends we aren't it makes us less safe".

Two Congressional Republicans from New York, Pete Hoekstra and Pete King have been doing the rounds of the radio and TV studios saying that members of President Obama's team "just don't get it" on national security.

Risky strategy

But the Republican's big Congressional guns, like Senator John McCain, have not rushed to comment and it may be that the party is simply testing the waters to see whether the issue has the traction to be an election winner for them.

It is a potentially risky strategy. After all, the security architecture, the terrorist database and the no-fly list that President Obama suggested should be overhauled were largely put in place by the Bush Administration in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Republicans will also be wary of being seen to directly criticise the men and women of America's intelligence services (who are generally held in high public esteem), and Democrats are already reminding news organisations that it was Republicans who voted against a $44bn funding bill for the Transport Security Administration, and are blocking the confirmation of Mr Obama's nominee to lead that organisation.

But for the moment, that debate is all part of the background noise of this story.

President Obama is dealing with the political reality that eight years after Richard Reid boarded a US-bound flight with explosives packed in his shoe, another radicalised Muslim was able to do much the same - with even more of the same explosive - and disaster was again only averted by sheer luck.

That may not be President Obama's fault, but it happened on his watch and that makes it his problem.

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