Myths and falsehoods surrounding the Christmas Day terrorist attack


Conservative media figures have politicized the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack to criticize President Obama's handling of national security matters. But their assertions about Obama's and former President Bush's handling of terrorism and national security are replete with myths and falsehoods.

MYTH 1: Trying Abdulmutallab in civilian court will endanger U.S. security

CLAIM: Civilian trials for terrorists is "the reason 9-11 happened."

  • DICK MORRIS: "[T]he reason 9-11 happened is that Bill Clinton treated the '93 bombing of the Trade Center as a crime, not as an act of war." [Fox News' Hannity, 1/4/10]
  • SARAH PALIN: Obama's "fundamental approach to terrorism is fatally flawed" and "treating this threat as a law enforcement issue is dangerous for our nation's security. That's what happened in the 1990s and we saw the result on September 11, 2001." [Facebook, 1/5/10]

REALITY: Holder testified that claim is based on "factual inaccuracies," "mis-information." While Morris and Palin did not explain their claims, Sean Hannity suggested on December 11 that Osama bin Laden was "tipped off" by the trial of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and his guest Andrew McCarthy responded that bin Laden was "certainly tipped off" by being included on a list of co-conspirators that was turned over to the defense during those trials [Hannity, 12/11/09]. In fact, during a November 18, 2009, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Attorney General Eric Holder testified that there was "mis-information with regard to this whole question of this co-conspirator list" because the list was "not a classified document," but prosecutors "could have sought a protective order" to stop its release.

MYTH 2: Bush did not try terrorism suspects in civilian court

CLAIM: Trying Abdulmutallab in civilian court "takes us back to the days of the Clinton administration"

  • Steve Doocy claimed that trying Abdulmutallab in civilian court "takes us back to the days of the Clinton administration, when things like this were treated as a law enforcement issue, and not as a national security issue." [Fox News' Fox & Friends, 1/4/09]

REALITY: The Bush administration tried several terrorist suspects in civilian court, including the shoe bomber and Moussaoui. Indeed, Zacarias Moussaoui was charged in civilian court, pled guilty and was sentenced by a jury to life in prison for his role in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks after the jury declined to give him the death penalty, and shoe bomber Richard Reid -- who reportedly claimed he was a member of Al Qaeda -- is serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison for "trying to blow up a trans-Atlantic flight with explosives concealed in his shoes" after being charged in civilian court and pleading guilty. Moreover, in May 2009, reported that according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, "federal facilities on American soil currently house 216 international terrorists and 139 domestic terrorists."

MYTH 3: Obama waited an unprecedented amount of time before discussing the attack

CLAIM: Obama waited too long before speaking about the failed attack

  • KARL ROVE: "First of all, I think it was a mistake for the president to have the incident happen on Christmas and for him not to be heard from for four days. The White House sent out its people to spin the press in that they were trying to reassure the American people. Well, I don't understand why keeping the president off the stage and then not having him explain it for four days is supposed to reassure us." [Hannity, 1/5/10]
  • BRIAN KILMEADE: "A lot of people were saying [Obama] was a little detached over in Hawaii when he first" spoke about the attempted attack. [Fox & Friends, 1/5/10]
  • DOOCY: "It took [Obama] three days." [Fox & Friends, 1/5/10]

REALITY: Bush waited six days before responding to 2001 shoe bomber attack. On December 22, 2001, after Reid attempted to light a fuse in his shoes while aboard a U.S.-bound American Airlines international flight, the passengers and flight crew were able to restrain him and foil the plot. Bush first mentioned Reid on December 28, 2001 -- six days after Reid's attempted bombing -- during a press conference in Crawford, Texas. In a December 29 article, Politico reported that "it was six days before President George W. Bush, then on vacation, made any public remarks about the so-called shoe bomber, Richard Reid, and there were virtually no complaints from the press or any opposition Democrats that his response was sluggish or inadequate." Politico added: "That stands in sharp contrast to the withering criticism President Barack Obama has received from Republicans and some in the press for his reaction to Friday's incident on a Northwest Airlines flight heading for Detroit."

MYTH 4: Napolitano's remarks following attempted attack prove she's not qualified

CLAIM: Napolitano should be fired for saying "the system worked" after the attempted Christmas day terrorist attack, even though it was foiled by the public

  • DOOCY: Napolitano is "number one on the list" of people who might be fired because "she said, yet, don't worry, everything worked, before she said, it did not work." [Fox & Friends, 1/5/10]
  • On December 28, Fox Nation posted an article about Napolitano, claiming that she "conceded Monday that airline security failed in allowing a Nigerian on a terror watch list and allegedly armed with explosives onto a Detroit-bound flight, a turnaround from her declaration a day ... earlier that 'the system worked.' " Fox Nation headlined the post, "Fire Napolitano? She Says 'The System Worked,' Then Backtracks," even though the article to which it linked contained no declarations about firing her.
  • "GUNNY" BOB NEWMAN: Napolitano is "not qualified to conduct a cavity search on a bowling ball." [Fox News' America's Newsroom, 1/4/10]

REALITY: Napolitano explained her comments were in reference to the emergency response system. On the December 27 broadcast of CNN's State of the Union, Napolitano stated that "the system worked" before discussing the emergency notification system and response to the incident.

NAPOLITANO: One thing I'd like to point out is that the system worked. Everybody played an important role here. The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action. Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight. We instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas, both here in the United States and in Europe, where this flight originated.

So the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly. [12/27/09]

Later on NBC Napolitano said that "the comment is being taken out of context" and clarified that she was referring to the fact that, after the incident, they "were immediately able to notify the 128 flights in the air on protective measures to take, immediately able to notify law enforcement on the ground, airports both domestically, internationally, all carriers, all of that happening within 60 to 90 minutes." On Fox News, after Doocy stated that "there are some who are calling for her to lose her job," Bush Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff defended Napolitano's job performance, stating: "I think she's actually done a good job."

Bush administration officials previously claimed success from a publically thwarted attack. In a December 28 article, ABC News' Jake Tapper noted that Bush administration officials -- including Tom Ridge and John Ashcroft -- "claimed success" due to the public's role in thwarting Reid's bombing attempt.

MYTH 5: After 9-11, there were no cases of domestic terrorism

CLAIM: Bush successfully prevented any domestic terrorist attacks after 9-11

  • SHERMAN FREDERICK: "Obama now talks tough about keeping America safe. But in the two cases of domestic terrorism since 9/11 -- both on Obama's watch -- red flags flew aplenty." [Las Vegas Review-Journal, 1/3/10]
  • MICHAEL GOODWIN: "Obama often complains about the problems he inherited from George W. Bush, but he also inherited a record of zero successful attacks on America after 9/11. If Islamic terrorists succeed on his watch, he can't blame Bush." [New York Post, 1/6/10]

REALITY: Several domestic attacks took place under Bush in addition to 9-11. One conservative, Rudy Giuliani, even went so far as to say Obama "should be doing is following the right things that Bush did -- one of the right things he did was treat this as a war on terror. We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We've had one under Obama." In addition to 9-11, there have been several post-9-11 terrorist attacks attempted during the Bush administration, including the 2001 Anthrax attacks, which then-Attorney General John Ashcroft called a terrorist attack; Reid's 2001 attempt, which Chertoff described as an attempt to "carry out terrorist operations for Al-Qaeda"; the 2002 attack against the El Al Airlines ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, which a 2004 Justice Department report "officially designated as an act of international terrorism"; the 2002 DC-area sniper, who was convicted on terrorism charges; and the 2006 attack at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, in which graduate Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar drove an SUV into an area of campus and struck nine pedestrians; he later reportedly said he wished to "follow in the footsteps of one of my role models, Mohammad Atta, one of the 9/11/01 hijackers."

MYTH 6: Obama refused to acknowledge attempted attack was part of a larger plot

CLAIM: Obama claimed that the attempted attack was the work of an "isolated extremist," and not a "plot"

  • Kilmeade claimed that Obama "contradicted himself. His original statements the day, three days after the attack, was, an isolated extremist would have had no chance against an alert citizenry -- to paraphrase. He now made it clear this was a plot; we're at war; it wasn't an isolated extremist." [Fox & Friends, 1/5/10]

REALITY: Obama did not limit blame to an "isolated extremist." In his original December 28 response to the attack, Obama never suggested that the attack was not a "plot." Rather, he said, "We do not yet have all the answers about this latest attempt," adding: "Those plotting against us seek not only to undermine our security, but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans. This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist."

MYTH 7: Temporary embassy closure in Yemen following attempted attack was a sign of weakness

CLAIM: The temporary closure of the U.S. embassy in Yemen was a "victory for Al Qaeda"

  • BILL KRISTOL: "Closing the embassy in Yemen last night -- I mean, I don't -- you know, no one wants State Department officials being put at risk and all that, but that is a sign of weakness. Closing the embassy? We can't protect our own embassy in Yemen, a place we have special operations forces, a place we say we're working with the government on the front lines of the war on terror? And there's a terror threat -- and we close the embassy? That's a victory for Al Qaeda. This last week has been a victory for Al Qaeda in that region, I'm afraid." [Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday, 1/3/10]
  • On January 4, the Fox Nation linked to a January 3 Associated Press article on the embassy closure using the headline: "Is Closing the U.S. Embassy in Yemen a Sign of Weakness?"

REALITY: U.S. embassy office in Yemen was also closed during Bush administration. In a January 23, 2002, article (accessed via the Nexis database), The Washington Post's Walter Pincus reported: "A senior Al Qaeda leader held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan provided information about an alleged plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Yemen with a truck bomb, leading to last week's decisions to close the embassy consular office and tighten security around the facility, Bush administration officials said yesterday."

Other nations' embassies in Yemen also closed. The AP article to which Fox Nation linked noted that Britain also closed its embassy in Yemen due to "[s]ecurity reasons." Additionally, The New York Times reported on January 4 that the "French, German and Japanese Embassies were also largely or entirely closed to the public." The United States reopened its embassy two days after closing it, following a raid by Yemeni security forces against Al Qaeda.

Myth 8: Racial profiling is an effective way to prevent terrorism

CLAIM: We "have to profile" Muslims in order to avert terrorist attacks

  • RUDY GIULIANI: "You have to" do "rationally-based" profiling or "you're putting yourself in great danger." [CNN's Larry King Live, 1/6/10]
  • KILMEADE: "[N]inety percent of these terrorists are men, Islamic men between 20 and 30. Why are we pretending that all of us should get equal training [sic]? Shouldn't we just tell -- if you're a 20- to 30-year-old Islamic male, even if you have no evil intentions, expect to be delayed. We have to -- we have to profile." [Fox & Friends, 1/4/10]
  • LT. GEN. TOM McINERNEY: "[W]e have to use profiling, and I mean be very serious and harsh about the profiling. If you are an 18- to 28-year-old Muslim man, then you should be strip-searched. And if we don't do that, there's a very high probability we're going to lose an airliner" and if "that age group doesn't like it, then what are they doing to stop this jihad against the West?" [Fox News' America's News HQ, 1/2/10]

REALITY: Security experts say such profiling is ineffective and potentially "dangerous." Several security experts have denounced the use of racial profiling as ineffective and potentially dangerous, including Chertoff, who recently called profiling for terrorists "misleading and, arguably, dangerous" and that "the danger and the foolishness of profiling" is that "people's conception of what a potential terrorist looks like often doesn't match reality."

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.