On the Sunday shows, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano responded to the underwear bomber by saying that the system worked. Today she walked back the remark. But the most you can accuse Napolitano of here is inartful language. When she talked about the system working, it was clear from context that she was referring to the enhanced security on flights, emergency response and other directives going FORWARD from the foiled Christmas Day attack. Her comments today are more about the systems that were already in place, like the confusing jumble of terrorist watch lists which failed to catch Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab upon entry to the United States:

As criticism mounted that security lapses had led to a brush with disaster on the Christmas holiday, President Obama ordered a review on Sunday of the two major planks of the aviation security system — watch lists and detection equipment at airport checkpoints. Some members of Congress urgently questioned why, more than eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, security measures could not keep makeshift bombs off airliners [...]

His father, a prominent Nigerian banker and former government official, phoned the American Embassy in Abuja in October with a warning that his son had developed radical views, had disappeared and might have traveled to Yemen, American officials said, but the young man’s visa to enter the United States, which was good until June 2010, was not revoked.

Instead, the officials said Sunday, embassy officials marked his file for a full investigation should he reapply for a visa. And when the information was passed on to Washington, his name was added to 550,000 others with possible terrorist connections — but not to the no-fly list. That meant no flags were raised when he used cash to buy a ticket to the United States and boarded a plane, checking no bags.

There’s simply too much raw intelligence information available, and modern society is simply too mobile, to expect the kind of pre-crime system you would imagine out of Minority Report. If you’re asking why Abdulmutallab slipped through, you have to ask that of any of a million other fliers who ended up simply arriving at their destination, despite circumstantial evidence. Air travel remains unbelievably safe from a statistical perspective. And so trying to lay the blame for a bungled, perhaps impossible to succeed bid to down an airliner at the feet of the DHS Secretary seems quite partisan.

This is especially true considering the Republican record this year of voting against TSA funding and placing a hold on the nominee to run TSA.

Reactionaries demanding why this person or that person was stopped from this or that plane tip their hand a bit – they want a vibrant security state with no freedom of movement, constant privacy invasions and constraints on personal liberty. I wish they’d say it out loud.

…The one area where you might have a legitimate argument is that Abdulmutallab should have had his visa revoked after showing up on a watch list. But he had the visa already, and again, there are so many millions of pieces of information that you would have to connect that a world where Abdulmutallab is caught is a world where tens of millions of people can basically not travel anywhere. Here’s a good discussion.