WASHINGTON (CN) - Senate Republicans used the Christmas bomber incident to attack the administration on security issues Tuesday while Democratic senators provided little defense. "Correcting those problems is possible under the current law," Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins said of the security lapses.
"Unfortunately, the terrorist attack on Fort Hood and the failed Christmas Day plot are stark reminders of what can happen when those authorities are not used effectively," Collins said during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing. She added, speaking over the intermittent snores of a reporter in the room, that the Obama administration is responsible for applying the law.
Former Chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Thomas Hamilton, appeared to join Collins' skepticism in his testimony. "It could be argued that it's more a failure of exercising authority," he said of the attacks, then added, "I do not think [Obama] has a firm grasp of the intelligence community."
Democrats did little to defend Obama against the onslaught.
On a Christmas Day flight to Detroit, Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab reportedly tried to ignite a bomb in his underwear, but was detained by fellow passengers. Despite being tipped-off on Abdulmutallab's radical views, the government did not put him on the no-fly list, and did not revoke his visa.
Collins noted that the failure to connect the dots and lack of accountability are recurring problems for intelligence. "It sounds like déjà vu all over again," she said, quoting Yogi Berra, but said the law is not the problem this time.
Chairman Joe Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, agreed that "mistakes were made with regard to the Christmas day attack."
Collins suggested that Obama is responsible for some of the confusion among intelligence agencies. She pointed to ongoing turf-battles and said, "I'm concerned that the president may have inadvertently undermined the Director of National Intelligence by siding with the Central Intelligence Agency." Hamilton seemed to agree, saying that Obama needs to make it "crystal clear" that the DNI is the intelligence leader.
Collins also expressed skepticism of State Secretary Hillary Clinton, who has the authority to revoke any visa at will. Collins said that the State Department had planned on questioning Abdulmutallab on his terrorist ties if he were to renew his visa, but failed to follow up immediately by perhaps revoking it. "That defies logic and common sense," she said.
"The president must empower his senior officials to use every authority available to them to defeat the terrorist threat," she said.
After Abdulmutallab's flight landed, he was questioned, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation soon provided him with a lawyer and upon the lawyer's recommendations, Abdulmutallab refused to continue talking.
Lieberman and Collins decried the situation as another communication breakdown, where intelligence leaders were not consulted before the Christmas bomber was read his Miranda rights and turned over to civilian courts.
Collins said Obama has the authority to hold Abdulmutallab as an enemy belligerent and to subject him to interrogation, but remarked that Obama has not exercised this right.
Lieberman called the situation "outrageous" and said Abdulmutallab deserves only the legal rights of an enemy combatant or prisoner of war. Senators called on the government to turn Abdulmutallab over to the military.
But despite the weaknesses that the Christmas bomber brought to light, Hamilton said certain aspects show great improvement in American security.
With the attempted Christmas bombing, the Fort Hood attack, and another attack on an army recruiter in Arkansas, Hamilton acknowledged that attacks have increased during the last year, but said al Qaeda has changed to focus more on solo missions.
"It's more difficult for al Qaeda to organize complicated attacks," Hamilton said, praising the United States defensive and offensive efforts since September 11, 2001. Kean added that Osama's attempt to take credit for the failed Christmas bombing shows al Qaeda is trying to stay relevant despite having little to boast of.
Former Chairman of the terrorism commission, Thomas Kean, said that analyzing information, not collecting it, poses the biggest challenge. Intelligence agencies are already "awash with data." Lieberman agreed and said the National Security Agency alone collects four times more info each day than is stored in Library of Congress.
Obama has called for intelligence reports to be distributed more quickly and more widely.
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