Trying to manage a terrorism threat in the middle of an election campaign, the Obama administration is walking a political and national security tightrope.
Remembering the debates over whether President George W. Bush sought to capitalize on the terrorism threat in the days before the 2006 election, White House officials do not want to look as if they are seizing on a potential catastrophe to win votes.
But at the same time, they remember when President Obama was criticized when he said nothing publicly in the three days after an attempt to blow up an airliner last Dec. 25.
“Every president has to be able to take off the partisan hat and assume the role of nonpartisan commander in chief when there is a security incident,” said C. Stewart Verdery Jr., a former assistant secretary of homeland security under Mr. Bush. “The president should be the public face of the response to send the right signals to Americans worried about our defenses, especially those partisans who might be inclined to find fault with anything the administration does.”
White House officials say politics has nothing to do with the quick response, and that the scene of fighter jets accompanying a passenger plane from Dubai as it landed in New York on Friday was the result of an “abundance of caution.”
“This has been handled just like any credible threat on any day,” Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Friday in an interview. Responding to a question from a reporter earlier in the day about whether the administration might be hyping the threat to sway the elections, Mr. Gibbs said that Mr. Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, briefed the president initially on Thursday night “off of very credible terror information.”
He said that the discovery afterward of explosives on two cargo planes bound for the United States should “put to rest any speculation that may be out there.”
After getting slammed for what critics complained was a slow public response to the Dec. 25 plot, administration officials, four days before the midterm elections, appeared determined not to make that mistake this time. Mr. Brennan said that while there were “similarities” between the interception of the explosives on Friday and the attempted bombing on Dec. 25, the two episodes were also “very different because you’re dealing with two packages as opposed to an individual.”
Still, Mr. Brennan said: “Whenever something like this happens, what we want to do is to make sure that we take all appropriate measures to identify additional threats that are out there. Whether it’s somebody who arrived in Detroit or whether a package is found in East Midlands, we’re trying to find, are there other individuals that are trying to blow up a plane?”
The White House reaction contrasted with its response to the December scare, when a Nigerian aided by the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit. While Mr. Obama was briefed repeatedly during a vacation in Hawaii, he did not address the episode in public until three days later, drawing criticism for not seeming to take it seriously enough.
This time, not only did Mr. Obama make a public statement within hours of the news breaking, but his staff also made sure that influential Republicans, like Representative Peter T. King of New York, were kept informed. Mr. King, who was among the Republican lawmakers who expressed their dissatisfaction last year with the information they received about the December attempt, offered a more favorable initial reaction on Friday.
“So far, everything has worked the right way,” he said.
But some outside experts said it was risky for a president to come out as quickly as he did before all the facts were known. “You’re trying to look presidential and in command of all the facts and not look impotent,” said James Jay Carafano, a homeland security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “But on the other hand, you don’t want to step in it and do something stupid. Quite honestly, I don’t know why they had a press conference.”
Moreover, Mr. Carafano said that Mr. Obama failed to use his remarks on Friday to justify the troop escalation in Afghanistan in an effort to keep the country from becoming a haven again for Al Qaeda. “The president missed the opportunity to say, ‘And this is why we’re in Afghanistan,’ ” Mr. Carafano said.
But in many ways, it is Yemen, and not Afghanistan, that is increasingly being viewed as a bigger potential terrorist threat to the United States. One senior White House official noted Friday that the discovery of the explosives was the third terrorist attempt in less than two years that appeared to have a connection to Yemen.
American officials say that Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical cleric now hiding in Yemen, played a direct role in the December airliner plot, and he has publicly called for more attacks on the United States. In addition, an Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Tex., a year ago had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki beforehand.
Juan Zarate, who was Mr. Bush’s deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism, said the interception of the explosives was different than the December plot, which stemmed from an intelligence and security breakdown and which challenged the administration’s response.
“The administration has clearly learned the lessons that it is essential that the president and his team demonstrate that they are taking seriously the threat and allowing the CT professionals to do their work,” said Mr. Zarate, using the initials for counterterrorism. “My only concern is that we not overreact publicly at the highest levels every time there is a terrorist incident.”
He added that the president should not feel compelled to jump every time Al Qaeda “says boo."