Obama addresses airline security in low-key fashion

By Anne E. Kornblut
Monday, December 28, 2009

KAILUA, HAWAII -- President Obama has performed a difficult but familiar balancing act over the past few days: ordering new security measures in the wake of an attempted airliner attack without excessively alarming the public -- or triggering an outcry from civil liberties advocates.

He has done so almost entirely out of sight. On vacation in Hawaii, tucked away in a lush neighborhood where his family is renting a waterfront home, Obama dispatched surrogates back in Washington -- chiefly Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano and press secretary Robert Gibbs, who appeared on the Sunday talk shows -- to reassure the public and explain his approach.

Yet even as the president avoided cameras and played golf and basketball over the weekend, his aides were quick to explain how fully Obama minded the aftermath of the Detroit case. He was briefed shortly after 6 a.m. on Sunday about the latest developments in the Christmas Day incident, aides said. After another airplane security breach occurred three hours later, his advisers quickly issued a statement on his behalf, even though that episode turned out to be a misunderstanding.

For Obama, who campaigned on a promise of restoring respect for individual rights and shifting away from the Bush-era "war on terror," the struggle between security and freedom is defining his presidency much as it did his predecessor's. Three of his most important national security speeches -- one at the National Archives in the spring, one announcing a troop increase in Afghanistan and one accepting the Nobel Peace prize on Dec. 10 -- addressed the need for a reasonable balance between competing goals.

After the attempted terrorist act, Obama sought answers to questions about the suspect and asked for new security steps at airports, White House officials said. But he did not ask to raise the nation's threat level -- and, in fact, left the decision entirely to Napolitano, senior officials said. Nor did he rush to address the public on camera, though he is likely to do so in the next few days, an official said.

Obama did not directly bring up the subject of protecting civil liberties in the aftermath of the Christmas Day case, a senior adviser said. If he calibrated his message, it was by allowing others to toe the national security line for the first few days. "It's not that the president sat back and thought, 'How do I find the middle course?' " an official said on Sunday. "The president was presented with the facts and said, 'What are the steps we need to take to protect the American people and make sure they understand all the requisite steps are indeed being taken and implemented?' "

The middle road is not without peril, as the president and his advisers have discovered. Throughout his first year in office, Obama disappointed liberals in his party with a series of policies -- from his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay military facility to his retention of the Bush policies of indefinite detention of prisoners and military commissions. But with other moves, such as trying the accused Sept. 11 plotters in federal court and opening a domestic detainee facility in Illinois, Obama has made good on civil-liberties-related campaign pledges -- provoking conservative ire.

That was the case on Sunday, when Michigan's Peter Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said that the Obama administration should be held accountable for the near-catastrophe aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253. Hoekstra said that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's presence on the flight was part of a pattern of administration neglect on preparedness questions, stemming from a failure to recognize essential dangers. "The threat to the United States is real. I think this administration has downplayed it," he said on Fox News Sunday.

Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) called for the administration to tip further in the direction of security, even if it comes at the expense of some individual rights. "We do need the full-body scan, especially when you have countries like Nigeria, which have inadequate security to begin with; then you have passengers transiting in Amsterdam and coming here," he said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

But Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), chair of the intelligence subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, said this weekend that the administration has to be cautious. "Civil liberties matter, and we must stay mindful that an overreaction has the potential to overwhelm the system and fail to make us more safe," she said in an interview.

Many of the new security measures are not being announced, and the administration's decision to review its various watch lists does not appear to have set off alarm bells. "I think it is too early to draw any conclusions -- and I hope there is no short-term, knee-jerk reaction," said Tom Parker, policy director for terrorism, counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International.

Obama is used to explaining policy himself. But so far in Hawaii, the Christmas Day incident has not required a presidential appearance or Obama's rhetorical skills.

Instead, after going to the gym and playing basketball with a small group -- including friends and staff -- Obama took his family and friends to a Marine Corps base beach that had been closed for the presidential entourage.

His aides noted another important balance Obama is trying to strike: between work and play, his job as president and his family, his public profile and a personal retreat that has been almost completely private for four full days.

Staff writers Michael Leahy and Peter Finn and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report from Washington.

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