Whether ‘the system’ worked

WHETHER ‘THE SYSTEM’ WORKED…. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has been catching all manner of hell over the last 24 hours for having said “the system worked” when it came to the AbdulMutallab incident in the skies over Michigan on Christmas. I can see why this was an awkward choice of words, but the reaction has been way over the top.

Napolitano’s reference to the system, in context, was clearly in reference to the federal response to the attempted terrorism:

“Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight. We instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas, both here in the United States and in Europe, where this flight originated. So the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly.”

This is hardly scandalous stuff. When there’s an attempted act of terrorism, the administration has a series of steps it wants to see executed, quickly and effectively. What Napolitano was talking about was officials’ ability to do just that — getting the right information to the right people at the right time so the right teams are ready, even on Christmas day. This wasn’t some drill — officials were given tasks in response to the attempted attack and “the system worked,” inasmuch as everyone did what they were supposed to do after the incident.

Much of the political world is throwing a fit, though, because “the system” didn’t “work” before the incident. But isn’t that obvious? The fact that AbdulMutallab was on the plane with a potential explosive device in his underwear pretty much proves that there was a breakdown at some point in the system. This much should be pretty clear to everyone, and it’s certainly clear to the head of DHS.

Asked about yesterday’s three-word phrase, Napolitano told Matt Lauer this morning, “I think the comment is being taken out of context. What I’m saying is, once the incident occurred, moving forward, we were immediately able to notify the 128 flights in the air of protective measures to take, immediately able to notify law enforcement on the ground….”

She added that the system that should have kept AbdulMutallab off the plane “failed miserably” and that “no one is happy or satisfied with that.”

The various right-wing voices are calling for Napolitano’s head, apparently because of the inconsequential three-word phrase. It’s hard to take this nonsense especially seriously since those identical right-wing voices also called for Napolitano’s head when they learned the Bush administration sought reports on the potential threats posed by radical extremists in the U.S.

Besides, if awkward phrasing is grounds for removal from high-ranking federal office, George W. Bush never would have made it through his first year of his presidency.

The question isn’t whether Napolitano’s choice of words was adequate; the question is whether she’s performing well running an nearly-impossible-to-oversee federal agency. By fair standards, she’s not only proven herself capable and competent, but also the best secretary DHS has had in its relatively short history.