As President Obama made his first public comments about the failed bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square over the weekend, Democrats and Republicans circled warily around the incident and its possible political fallout.
With events in the fast-moving investigation still unfolding, few congressional Republicans were ready to criticize the Obama administration’s handling of the incident, in which a crude but powerful bomb inside a sport utility vehicle failed to detonate.
But Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he did not understand why the Justice Department touted the failure of the attack and the arrest of suspect Faisal Shahzad just minutes before his flight was to leave for Dubai on Monday night as a win for law enforcement.
“Our strategy cannot be near-misses and calling near-misses a success,” Mr. Hoekstra said. “Being lucky is a pretty bad national security policy.”
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Speaking Tuesday morning, Mr. Obama called the incident a “sobering reminder” of an ongoing threat but insisted the U.S. “will not be terrorized.”
“Justice will be done and we will continue to do everything in our power to protect the American people,” Mr. Obama said at the beginning of a speech to the Business Council, a consortium of top national business executives. “Around the world and here at home, there are those who would attack our citizens and slaughter innocent men, women and children in pursuit of their murderous agenda.”
Mr. Obama said the attack failed because ordinary citizens were vigilant and law enforcement personnel reacted quickly. He said he had personally thanked the street vendors who spotted the suspect’s smoking, abandoned SUV in Times Square on Saturday and the responding police officer.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs later told reporters that the administration has “greatly increased our tempo as it relates to terrorist activities throughout the world on a number of continents.”
The political response to the Times Square plot has been far more muted than was the case after a similar failed terrorist attack: the attempted Christmas Day bombing of an airliner on an international flight to Detroit. Administration critics sharply attacked the contention by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at the time that the “system worked” in thwarting the terrorist strike and the handling of the Nigerian national charged in the plot.
Democrats, eager this time to counter charges that the Republicans take a harder line on terrorist threats and national security, said the failure of the New York City bomb plot was a sign of the soundness of the underlying policy approach.
“We’re tough on terrorists. That’s our policy, that’s our performance and, in fact, we’ve been more successful” than Republicans, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters at his weekly press roundtable, citing in particular Mr. Obama’s renewed focus on terrorism threats from Pakistan.
But the Maryland Democrat said that even the best policies and constant vigilance cannot guarantee success.
“You have got to do everything you possibly can and then pray that you get also lucky, not because luck is what you want to rely on but because clearly it is such a difficult challenge,” Mr. Hoyer said.
House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, in a previously scheduled foreign policy address at the Heritage Foundation, added words of praise to law enforcement officials for their handling of the Times Square incident.
“We all owe them a debt of gratitude,” he said.
But the Virginia Republican sketched a much larger critique of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, which he said was harsh on traditional U.S. allies while taking “extra precaution with our enemies.”
“It’s time to remove the blinders of political correctness from our eyes,” Mr. Cantor said. “It is time to cast aside wishful thinking. We must see the world and our enemies not for what we hope they are but for who they truly are.”
Mr. Obama’s critics were divided over another key aspect of the case: the decision to read the suspect — a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan — his constitutional rights before questioning him. The FBI said Tuesday that Mr. Shahzad was first questioned without hearing his rights under a “public safety” legal exception, but was subsequently “Mirandized” before further interrogation.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said in a radio interview that it would be a “serious mistake” to read the suspected terrorist his rights against self-incrimination and the right to counsel. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican candidate for Senate, told reporters in Washington that the Obama administration’s approach could have problems.
“It all depends on how they’re going to try him,” Mr. Rubio said. “If [terrorists] stop talking, people can die.”
But the Obama administration won an endorsement of its approach from a surprising source: conservative television host Glenn Beck, who noted that the suspect had not forfeited his rights as an American citizen.
“We don’t shred the Constitution when its popular. We do the right thing,” Mr. Beck said on the Fox News “Fox and Friends” show.
• David R. Sands contributed to this report.