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System Failure 

Before we criticize Obama vs. terrorism, let’s remember “Brownie” vs. Katrina

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Janet Napolitano’s response to the Christmas day terrorist incident, “the system worked,” compares with the failure of Michael Brown and George W. Bush during the Katrina disaster — as right-wing yowlers now assert — in about the same way that a near-miss on a freeway compares with a thousand-car pile up — a pileup resulting in more than 1,800 deaths.

When New Orleans flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Coast Guard was heroic. But the rest of the Bush administration’s response? The National Guard didn’t arrive on the scene until two days after the levees had been breached. It took FEMA Director Michael Brown’s office six days to finalize the scheduling of evacuation buses. It was four days before either Michael Chertoff or Brown learned that survivors were fleeing to the Superdome and convention center.

And all this after the National Weather Service had issued a dire warning. On Monday, Aug. 28, 2005, the day before landfall, the NWS fairly shouted out the terrifying news: The city was to become unlivable and “human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

For Brown, it was life as usual. Three days after the hurricane made landfall, a FEMA staffer sent him an e-mail warning of deaths “within hours” unless water and food arrived. Brown’s assistant wrote back that the director, who was dining out in Baton Rouge, wasn’t to be disturbed — after all, he needed more than half an hour to eat dinner.

And then there was Bush. The day the hurricane began drowning New Orleans, he attended John McCain’s birthday party in Arizona. Then, the next day, as reports of looting rolled in, he flew to California to be photographed with a guitarist. It would be two and a half weeks later before he showed up in New Orleans for his well-orchestrated photo-op and extended his now-infamous congratulations: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”

In contrast, President Obama first made certain that he knew exactly what had happened.

Then, having been briefed, he came right to the point: We confront a systemic failure or a personal failure or both. He has demanded to know what went wrong in both areas.

As for Janet Napolitano, she heads up the most Byzantine agency in the government. Homeland Security is made up of elements of 22 agencies from nine departments. The agency is expected to stop the raindrops not just where they fall (feat enough) but before they fall, and with no warning whatsoever.

If one of the bad guys gets by the picket line, she has even broader responsibilities. Her statement, “the system worked,” referred implicitly to the response, not prevention: “The Aviation Operational Threat Response Plan ensures a comprehensive and coordinated U.S. Government response to air threats against the United States.” She knew this plan had kicked into high gear.

Knowing that the attack had failed, her concern shifted to the second plan, the “Aviation Transportation System Recovery Plan,” which expands her responsibilities greatly, as the following excerpt shows: “Rapid recovery from an attack or similar disruption in the Air Domain is critical to the economic well-being of our Nation. A credible capacity for rapid recovery will minimize an incident’s economic impact.”

Yes, the DHS Secretary is required to think beyond national security, beyond safety — she is also required to show concern for the economy! So she didn’t issue that ominous “Code Red” warning — not during the Christmas season, not when she felt confident that there would be no further incidents. With her statement, she sought to reassure. Yes, there had been a breakdown. Yes, she and her people were on the job.

Of course go on your trip. Flying is still safe.

Obama’s “what went wrong” question may prove to more difficult than identifying the person or persons who made the determination not to put on the “no-fly list” this 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who forevermore will be known as the panty-bomber.

After all, Umar’s own father actually had given the U.S. embassy fair warning: He told us that his son had become radicalized. Somewhere out in Bureaucracyland, however, there’s a person who used lousy judgment. And assuming that this person can be identified, he or she should be removed. No second chances.

But personal failure may not explain everything. The Department of Homeland Security, as complex and as contrived as it is, must struggle with many systemic problems, none of them of Janet Napolitano’s making.

Bottom line: We need human judgment to compliment the scans. The Israelis have known this for some time. Their boarding security system is based on personal contact — a sense, a feel. It’s the responses to the questions and the looks into the eyes that nail the bad guys. Just as back in 1999, when the Port Angeles, Wash., customs agent noticed what she thought was unusual nervousness. She demanded more identification, and the would-be bomber panicked.

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