Democrats Seek Cover on Security

Posted January 13, 2010 at 6:41pm

House Democratic leaders are looking to President Barack Obama to show that the party in power is staying on offense when it comes to national security, a topic that Republicans are already using to score political points after a planned Christmas Day terrorist attack was narrowly averted.

Republicans have been bashing Democrats and the administration in recent weeks for not moving fast enough to address the breakdown in airport security that led to a botched attack on a Northwest flight bound for Detroit from overseas. But Democrats say they are rising above political attacks and taking all the action they can for now — namely, scheduling committee hearings to investigate the matter — as they await broader direction from Obama.

“This is really the White House leading … with us supporting or prodding as appropriate,— said one senior House Democratic aide. “So far, I think the White House response has been good, and a lot of Republican criticisms are ringing hollow and hypocritical. That being said, certainly we need to keep the pedal to the metal on this issue.—

In the days after the Dec. 25 incident, key House committee chairmen scrambled to set hearings to investigate what went wrong and how to ensure that intelligence sharing is beefed up going forward.

On Wednesday, Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) held a classified committee briefing with National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair and National Counterterrorism Center Director Michael Leiter. The two-hour meeting gave Members a chance to ask questions and get updates on the investigation into the thwarted Christmas Day attack.

Reyes said so far he has been “very satisfied— with the administration’s response, particularly in terms of information sharing. “We’ve gotten a steady stream of information and updates. We asked for the briefing today so we could determine where we needed to go with hearings,— he said.

But some key Republicans in the briefing accused the Obama administration of not moving fast enough to resolve national security glitches. Intelligence ranking member Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) complained to the agency officials that the White House had done a poor job of keeping Congress in the loop on national security issues.

“The White House continues to put up roadblocks and hurdles to prevent us from getting information or answers to even basic questions. … Although I appreciate your efforts to keep us informed, the fact that the White House is directing you to do otherwise on critical national security issues is extraordinarily disappointing,— Hoekstra said in opening remarks.

Hoekstra, who is running for governor of his home state, told the officials that it is “inexcusable and contradicts the many promises from you— that the White House still hasn’t briefed Intelligence Committee members on the administration’s Nov. 30 review of the shooting spree at Fort Hood, Texas.

Reyes chalked up Hoekstra’s remarks to political posturing: “Last time I checked, he was running for governor. So, you know, he has a track record. Enough said.—

With midterm elections just around the corner, Reyes said he expected Republicans to try to politicize Democratic efforts on national security. He emphasized the need for Democrats to stay focused on what they were elected to do in order to overcome pressure to give in to partisan attacks.

“I think we do our job. … I think the politics will take care of themselves,— Reyes said. “Republicans think they can somehow continue to try to undermine what we’re doing. But I, for one, as chair of the Intelligence Committee, am not going to let them do that.—

Other Democrats on the committee agreed. “I think the best thing for Democrats to do is to be nonpartisan about this,— Intelligence member Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) said. “That casts the light on the very cheap things that Republicans have gone to a very low level to do.—

Eshoo blasted Republicans for “groveling in the mud— by playing politics with national security issues and, though she declined to name anyone in particular, for leaking classified information to the press for political reasons. “There’s a big difference between patriots and traitors,— she said.

Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), another member of the Intelligence Committee, said he was satisfied with the administration’s response to the Christmas Day terrorism scare and urged people to have patience as the administration is working “feverishly— to put forward a solid plan.

“This is only the first part of getting the answers to the questions that many of us have,— Langevin said, referring to the classified briefing on the planned Christmas Day attack. “We’re going to keep digging and come up with a way forward that makes sure we get it right the next time.—

Meanwhile, Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said he has been satisfied with the administration’s response to the Dec. 25 incident. But he added that he fully expects to hear about changes being put into place by the time administration officials testify before his committee at the end of the month. Among those expected to testify is Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

“Hopefully … they will tell us exactly what we’ve done and ‘here are the gaps that are no longer gaps, here’s how information is shared, here’s the training that goes with the new technology,’— Thompson said.

Asked what his committee would do if changes weren’t in place by the upcoming hearing, Thompson said, “Well, if the president and his people don’t take ownership … we’re going to have to make it more of a public issue.— Without a swift response from the administration, he said he was prepared to take legislative action to impose timelines on various agencies to make needed changes to their national security operations.