GOP takes jab at Democrats' 'luck' in fighting terrorism

By Karen Tumulty and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 7, 2010

Two days after the dramatic arrest of Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad, Republicans were engaged in a full-bore effort to rewrite the good-news narrative.

"Yes, we have been lucky," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) said Thursday, "but luck is not an effective strategy for fighting terrorism."

Whatever the merits of their argument -- and, where terrorism is concerned, it is prudent to keep cockiness at bay -- there is a political imperative at work as well. "Democrats are always suspect on national security, and anything that makes them look weak on national security creates an opportunity for Republicans," said Whit Ayres, a GOP pollster.

The GOP's criticism was broader than the questions that have been raised surrounding the circumstances of Shahzad's arrest, such as whether he should have been read his Miranda rights and why he made it aboard an airliner despite being put on the no-fly list earlier in the day.

While Republicans praised the FBI and local authorities, they noted that the intelligence agencies have -- for the third time since the Fort Hood attack in November -- failed to interrupt an individual before the act. "I look at the Christmas deal," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (Calif.), referring to the attempted airliner bombing over Detroit, "and I look at this deal, and I say, 'Wow, one of these times they are going to get it right.' "

"How many times can we count on our enemies' incompetence?" said Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.), a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee. Rogers contended that the intelligence agencies have curtailed some crucial information-gathering activities of overseas CIA officers, although he declined to specify which, saying it was classified.

In mid-April, The Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency had stopped collecting certain types of electronic data -- including origins, destinations and paths of e-mail, and the phone numbers called from particular telephones -- from U.S. citizens suspected of working with terrorists.

Democrats dismissed the Republicans' efforts to make the case that a successful arrest has obscured deeper national security problems. "A political game," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (Tex.).

Added Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (Mo.): "They caught him. They caught him. They caught him. What's wrong with being lucky?"

Keeping the homeland safe is an area where Republicans have enjoyed a traditional advantage, but that edge is narrower than it used to be.

In late March, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 43 percent of those surveyed trust Republicans more to handle the U.S. campaign against terrorism; 37 percent preferred the Democrats. In the first year after the Sept. 11 attacks, by comparison, the confidence gap ran 30 percentage points in the GOP's favor. It slipped away as doubts about the Iraq war grew. More recently, public faith has even tipped toward the Democrats at times.

President Obama, in particular, has maintained relatively strong approval on the way he is dealing with the threat of terrorism, generally holding around 55 percent or better since last summer, even as opinion of his handling of domestic issues such as health care and the economy has slipped into unfavorable territory. This might, in part, reflect the fact that, by some measures, he has prosecuted the war against al-Qaeda more aggressively than his predecessor; for instance, expanding the number of attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan's tribal territories.

Obama has maintained that support despite a steady barrage of criticism from the right, including suggestions that his collaborative posture overseas is inconsistent with keeping the country secure. "Maybe the world has a better view of us," said Kate O'Beirne, president of the National Review Institute, while appearing Wednesday at a Capitol Hill event for the conservative Resurgent Republic. "I would not need a poll to see what the American public thinks of being more popular but less safe."

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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