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Holder and other officials celebrate catching Times Square bomb suspect

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; A02

Attorney General Eric Holder is one of those rare birds that crow before the sun rises.

Evan Perez, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, was sitting in his underwear in his Capitol Hill home at 1:09 a.m. Tuesday when an e-mail from the Justice Department popped up on his BlackBerry. It said Holder would be making a statement to the media -- live from the Justice Department -- at the ungodly hour of 1:30 a.m.

After scrambling into some torn jeans and a polo shirt, Perez raced to 10th and Constitution, parked his car illegally and hurried into the briefing room. He was one of only two reporters who made it there in time to witness Holder's announcement that a suspect had been arrested in the botched Times Square car bombing.

The attorney general could have left the middle-of-the-night announcement to one of his 130,000 subordinates at the department, but he was not about to pass up a chance to attach himself -- and the Obama administration -- to a bit of good news in the counterterrorism fight.

"We will not rest until we have brought everyone responsible to justice," said Holder, who, indeed, was not resting.

Exactly 12 hours later, Holder was back in the same room to do it all over again, this time with six law enforcement types joining him in an exercise in mutual kudos.

"Exemplary investigative efforts," Holder said.

"A great team effort," contributed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. "Truly exemplary."

"An outstanding job," offered John Pistole, the felicitously named FBI man on the stage.

The fourth speaker, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, had a tough job in matching the congratulations of the previous three. But he was equal to the task. The FBI agents and NYPD detectives had "investigative muscle," he said, the bomb squad "suited up in very oppressive gear," and the customs officials were "eagle-eyed."

From there, it was off to the movies. Kelly described the car bomb using a term popularized by an Oscar-winning film. "That lethal assembly really made a very big hurt locker," he said, shifting from there to the television drama "24." "By my calculation, from the time Faisal Shahzad drove into and across Broadway and parked that vehicle until when he was apprehended last evening at JFK airport, it was 53 hours and 20 minutes. Now, we know that Jack Bauer can do it in 24 [hours]. But in the real world, 53 is a pretty good number."

Yes, but 11 isn't. That's the number of times the people onstage thanked one another and everybody else, from the street vendors in New York who spotted the smoking SUV to the reporters in the room. Add in the various other forms of commendation and attaboys/attagirls, and a whole lot of celebrating was going on in the halls of Justice on Tuesday.

Without question, it was brilliant police work that allowed authorities to identify, track and nab the suspect just before he fled the country. But crowing about a victory against terrorists is dangerous business. The only thing that stopped the Times Square would-be bomber from succeeding was that he, like the Christmas Day would-be bomber, was inept. And while it may be better to be lucky than good, at some point the luck will run out -- it's just not possible to stop every terrorist -- and celebrating the arrest of the Times Square suspect will look naive in retrospect.

Republicans, rather than joining the celebration, were looking for ways to find in the latest arrest a reason to call the administration soft on terrorists. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) had a jaw-dropping assessment: Shahzad, though he is a U.S. citizen arrested on U.S. soil, should not have been read his constitutional rights. "Did they Mirandize him?" he asked Politico. "I know he's an American citizen, but still."

As it happens, Shahzad was questioned under the "public-safety exception" to the Miranda rules and continued talking even after he was read his rights. But the complaints go well beyond Miranda rights.

In a speech to the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) dispatched the Times Square incident in all of 38 words before using about 2,000 words to condemn President Obama with phrases such as "naive moral relativism" and "blind pursuit of peace at any cost." He said that "many in this town" -- Democrats, presumably -- won't stay focused on terrorism after this incident fades from the news.

At the Justice Department, Holder and his colleagues attempted to deflect this inevitable line of attack with multiple reminders about "how important it is to remain vigilant."

Unlike at Holder's early-morning appearance before the cameras, about 40 journalists were in the room the second time, all properly attired. And they were beginning to dampen the celebration: How did Shahzad get on the plane if he was on a no-fly list? Was it really an operational bomb? Was an international terrorist group involved?

"At this point, I think I'm going to say no more than what I have said," Holder said.

Understandably so. After televised celebrations at 1:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., the attorney general needed a rest.

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