Washington Prowler

The Politics of Incompetence

Obama White House scrambles to spin itself out of post-Flight 253 fallout.

By 12.31.09

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On December 26, two days after Nigerian Omar Abdulmutallab allegedly attempted to use underwear packed with plastic explosives to blow up the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight he was on, and as it became clear internally that the Administration had suffered perhaps its most embarrassing failure in the area of national security, senior Obama White House aides, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod and new White House counsel Robert Bauer, ordered staff to begin researching similar breakdowns -- if any -- from the Bush Administration.

"The idea was that we'd show that the Bush Administration had had far worse missteps than we ever could," says a staffer in the counsel's office. "We were told that classified material involving anything related to al Qaeda operating in Yemen or Nigeria was fair game and that we'd declassify it if necessary."

The White House, according to the source, is in full defensive spin mode. Other administration sources also say a flurry of memos were generated on December 26th, 27th, and 28th, which developed talking points about how Obama's decision to effectively shut down the Homeland Security Council (it was merged earlier this year into the National Security Council, run by National Security Adviser James Jones) had nothing to do with what Obama called a "catastrophic" failure on Christmas Day.

"This White House doesn't view the Northwest [Airlines] failure as one of national security, it's a political issue," says the White House source. "That's why Axelrod and Emanuel are driving the issue."

Axelrod, who has no foreign policy or national security experience beyond occasionally consulting with liberal or progressive candidates running for political office in foreign countries, has been actively participating in national security briefings from the beginning of the administration. He has also sat in on Obama's "war council" meetings, providing Obama with suggestions in both venues based on what he knows about polling and public opinion data, say several White House sources.

"[Axelrod] isn't sitting in the meetings telling the President, 'Do this because the polling shows that,'" says one source. "But we know that in less public settings, or on paper, David does provide guidance to the President that gives him added context to the recommendations and information our foreign policy and national security teams give him."

Axelrod's presence in the meetings has raised some eyebrows, as previous political advisers in the White House have typically not participated in such meetings. Bush Administration sources, for example, say that political adviser Karl Rove was not present at national security meetings.

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