Just four days before midterm elections, President Obama went before the nation to address fears of suspicious packages that led to an investigation on three continents. He called the packages a “credible threat” that “apparently” contained explosive material.
The concerns began Thursday night in Britain when officials there became concerned about a package from Yemen and bound for Chicago that had the hallmarks of an explosive device. Another package was intercepted in the United Arab Emirates. On Friday, a flight from Dubai to New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was escorted through American airspace by two F-15 fighter jets. The plane landed without incident and inspections of cargo at airports in Philadelphia, Newark, and Chicago yielded no suspicious packages.
The episode left Obama administration with a political as well as a security problem. Just days before the election, the White House had to ponder whether to press ahead with a final weekend of campaigning that was going to take him to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, Virginia, and his home state of Illinois.
The White House announced that there would be no change in the president's plan to visit five states on the final weekend of the campaign. Indeed, as the president spoke, crowds were already lining up in Charlottesville, Va., for his campaign visit tonight on behalf of Democratic Rep. Tom Perriello, who faces a tough re-election battle.
The president made it clear he was being kept abreast of the situation. Late Friday, the White House released a photo of the president in the Situation Room being briefed on the troubling packages. As soon as the president finished his remarks, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs offered a detailed account of the president’s briefings on the situation throughout the day. Those briefings included reports from National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, CIA Director Leon Panetta, and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan.
A sudden concern with national security is not unusual just before an election. Before the 2004 presidential contest, Osama Bin Laden released a videotape and during the 2002 midterm elections the since-abandoned color-coded threat indicator shifted much to the consternation of Democrats many of whom cried that alarms about terror were tied to politics. So far Republicans had shown restraint on that front. Earlier Friday, Rep. Peter King, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said he was satisfied with the government’s efforts thus far.
Obama did not explicitly blame al-Qaida or any other group for planting the suspicious packages, but he noted that they originated in Yemen. The president also said al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen, “continues to plan attacks against our homeland, our citizens, and our friends and allies.” The decision not to attribute blame is not surprising given the difficulty of determining culpability. It also behooved a president who argued strenuously as a senator and candidate that intelligence had been misused in the run up to the war with Iraq.