EDITORIAL: Big Sister’s big flip-flop

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On Sunday, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed that the attempt to blow up the Amsterdam to Detroit flight last week demonstrated that “the system worked.” On NBC’s “Today” show on Monday, she claimed that her comment was taken out of context, and that she agrees that the system “failed miserably.” Ms. Napolitano’s second attempt at honesty was just as disingenuous as the first.

In her interview on Monday morning, she claimed that her reference to the system working just dealt with how security responded after the attack had been thwarted.

Matt Lauer said, “You made a comment over the weekend … about this incident aboard this Northwest flight and you said, ‘When it came right down to it, the system worked.’ A lot of people don’t think the system worked at all, that the only thing that prevented disaster was luck.”

And Ms. Napolitano replied, “I think the comment is being taken out of context. What I’m saying is that 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, airports both domestically, internationally, all carriers, all of that happening within 60 to 90 minutes …”

But Ms. Napolitano’s comments on Sunday were not just about the aftermath of the attack: “What we are focused on is making sure that the air environment remains safe, that people are confident when they travel. And one thing I’d like to point out is that the system worked. Everybody played an important role here. The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action …”

If her comment applies only to the aftermath of the attack, then she has an interesting definition of “everybody.” The baggage and passenger screeners only had a useful role before the attack. Management and updating of our watch lists only really mattered before the attack.

It is hardly obvious why the actions taken after the attempted attack should assure us that travelers should be “confident” that air travel is “safe.” Nor is it obvious that the heroic actions taken by a passenger, Jasper Schuringa, who stopped the bombing, were part of some grand government design. Mr. Schuringa put out the fire with his bare hands while he was screaming for someone to give him water.

The appropriate role of the Cabinet secretary charged with keeping terrorists off airplanes is taking responsibility for failure, figuring out exactly how the failures happened and then tightening security to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

There are plenty of people in the Obama administration and out who can deliver self-serving spin on TV, but nobody else currently empowered to provide leadership to the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Agency.

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