Josh Gerstein Josh Gerstein – Tue Dec 29, 10:33 pm ET
Eight years ago, a terrorist bomber’s attempt to blow up a transatlantic airliner was thwarted by a group of passengers, an incident that revealed some gaping holes in airline security just a few months after the attacks of Sept. 11. But it was six days before President George W. Bush, then on vacation, made any public remarks about the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, and there were virtually no complaints from the press or any opposition Democrats that his response was sluggish or inadequate.
That stands in sharp contrast to the withering criticism President Barack Obama has received from Republicans and some in the press for his reaction to Friday’s incident on a Northwest Airlines flight heading for Detroit.
Democrats have seized on the disparity and are making it a centerpiece of their efforts to counter GOP attacks on the White House. “This hypocrisy demonstrates Republicans are playing politics with issues of national security and terrorism,” DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan said. “That they would use this incident as an opportunity to fan partisan flames … tells you all you need to know about how far the Republican Party has fallen and how out of step with the American people they have become.”
The Democrats’ counterattack is aimed largely at two Republican congressmen who have been particularly critical of Obama, Reps. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) and Peter King (R-N.Y.). But neither GOP lawmaker concedes applying a double standard to Obama.
But the similarities between last Friday’s incident and the attempted shoe bombing in 2001 are striking.
This year’s attack came on Christmas. The attempt eight years ago took place on Dec. 22. Obama was on vacation in Hawaii when the suspect, Omar Abdulmutallab, allegedly used plastic explosives in his try to blow up the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight. Bush was at Camp David when Reid used similar plastic explosives to try to blow up his Paris-to-Miami flight, which diverted to Boston after the incident.
Like the Obama White House, the Bush White House told reporters the president had been briefed on the incident and was following it closely. While the Obama White House issued a background statement through a senior administration official calling the incident an “attempted terrorist attack” on the same day it took place, the early official statements from Bush aides did not make the same explicit statement.
Bush did not address reporters about the Reid episode until December 28, after he had traveled from Camp David to his ranch in Texas.
Democrats do not appear to have criticized Bush over the delay. Many were wary of publicly clashing with the commander in chief, who was getting lofty approval ratings after what appeared to be a successful military campaign in Afghanistan. The media also seemed to have little interest in pressing Bush about the bombing, or the fact that the incident had revealed a previously unknown vulnerability in airplane security — that shoes could be used to hide chemicals or explosive devices.
An Agence France-Presse story was one of the few to call attention to the silence from Bush and other top officials.
“Four days after Richard Colvin Reid, 28, tried to set fire to his explosives-laden shoes on a trans-Atlantic flight, neither the White House nor other authorities had spoken officially on the alleged would-be suicide bombing,” AFP wrote on Dec. 27, 2001.
During a wide-ranging 25-minute press availability with Bush the next day, reporters asked more than 15 questions, including queries about the president’s New Year’s Eve plans and a tree he’d planted. Bush was never asked about Reid, but mentioned the attempt in passing.
“The shoe bomber was a case in point, where the country has been on alert,” Bush said. “A stewardess on an American Airlines flight — or a flight attendant on an American Airlines flight — was vigilant, saw something amiss and responded. It's an indication that the culture of America has shifted to one of alertness. And I'm grateful for the flight attendant's response, as I'm sure the passengers on that airplane. But we've got to be aware that there are still enemies to the country. And our government is responding accordingly.”
While many congressional Republicans and their supporters have been critical of Obama, Hoekstra and King have been the most ubiquitous, becoming regulars on cable TV, providing details about the case at a time the administration was still tight-lipped.
In an appearance Monday on WCBS-TV in New York, King said, “I'm disappointed it's taken the president 72 hours to even address this issue. Basically nobody, the president, the vice president, the attorney general, nobody except [Homeland Security] Secretary [Janet] Napolitano has come out. And she said yesterday everything worked well. What I hope the president would do is treat this in a bipartisan way, acknowledge that mistakes were made and promise we'll do all we can to make sure it doesn't happen again."
And speaking Monday on Fox News, Hoekstra took a similar tack, arguing that the slowness of Obama’s reaction showed terrorism wasn’t high on his agenda. “On many other instances and occasions the president is out front. He’s out front leading very early on a lot of different issues. When it comes to terrorism to the threat to the homeland, the president has decided to stay silent for 72 hours. He needs to explain that,” said the Michigan Republican, who is the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. “Why this is not a priority? It should be his No. 1 priority.”
Asked Tuesday about how Obama’s response differed from Bush’s, King said it was his “recollection” that senior Bush Administration officials such as Attorney General John Ashcroft did speak out about Reid’s case soon after he was arrested. However, POLITICO could not locate any public comment from Ashcroft before he held a press conference when Reid was indicted nearly a month later.
“My point was there was no word coming from anyone except a press handout,” King told POLITICO Tuesday. “It didn’t have to be the president. I’d have been fine if it were Eric Holder or for that matter [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano. … There should be a face for the administration. For the first 48 hours, nobody said a word.”
Asked about a double standard for Bush’s actions in 2001, a spokesman for Hoekstra, John Truscott, said Tuesday the congressman was really objecting more to the administration’s clamp-down on briefings to Congress than about Obama’s public silence.
“I don’t think that’s an issue,” Truscott said. “One of the things the congressman has been complaining about following the Fort Hood attack and now this one, as ranking member of the intelligence committee, it’s very difficult for him to get information. That lack of transparency has an impact on the Hill.”
While the White House has dramatically ramped up Obama’s public profile on the bombing, putting him on camera two days in a row to address the issue, officials insist he was neither reluctant nor slow to react.
“The president has been very engaged on this, has been leading our response effort, asking agencies to take a variety of steps including all the steps he outlined,” National Security Council chief of staff Denis McDonough told reporters Monday.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was already booked for several Sunday shows, but McDonough said that in light of Friday’s incident Obama decided to send Napolitano out as well.
“We thought it made sense for him to handle it this way,” McDonough said. “We don’t really have a standard operating procedure for when is best to go out. … He recognizes that it’s very important that we communicate to the American people what we know and the steps that we’re taking.”
An Obama White House spokesman declined to comment Tuesday on the parallels with the 2001 incident.
While King and Hoekstra have repreatedly criticized Obama for his response, former Bush aides and advisers have sidestepped the issue or endorsed Obama’s approach.
On CNN’s "Larry King Live" on Monday night, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who was a White House adviser at the time of Reid’s attempted bombing, brushed aside a question about whether Obama should have waited three days to speak out. “I'm going to leave that to the White House. I think he had Secretary Napolitano out there speaking,” Ridge said.
And over the weekend, former Bush pollster Matthew Dowd was asked if Obama was correct when, like Bush, he held off speaking at the outset. “Yes,” Dowd told Jake Tapper Sunday on ABC’s "This Week." “Part of the problem here is that all the facts that you think are true at the beginning turn out not to be true as the days go on."
Meanwhile, Sevugan also criticized Hoekstra for sending out a fundraising e-mail that invoked the Christmas Day bombing attempt. “Raising money off it is beyond the pale,” the DNC spokesman said.
Truscott, Hoekstra’s spokesman, dismissed criticism of his boss’s terrorism-related fundraising appeal as part of an effort by Democrats to undercut his gubernatorial bid.
“This is the hottest issue going right now. Everybody’s talking about it’s the lead story in the news all across the country,” Truscott said. “As a leading national expert on this issue, it’s certainly appropriate to raise this issue as he talks about the leadership he could bring to Michigan.”
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