When U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Sunday that she believed the attempt to bomb New York's Time Square was a "one-off" event, she wasn't making a judgment about the suspected bomber's associations with other terrorists or groups, according to a DHS official. If she was, she would have called him a "lone wolf."
Napolitano made the new claim to ABC News on Sunday, stating that there was no evidence the failed attack was "anything other than a one-off," based on the information she had at the time. Conservative critics, opinion writers, nonpartisan experts, and even Democratic strategists are comparing the statement to her now-infamous remark just after the attempted underwear bombing on Christmas Day that "the system worked," a statement she later retracted.
By saying publicly that the current view of the incident was that it was a "one-off" event, Napolitano was signaling to local law enforcement groups all over the country that the federal government did not expect an imminent follow-up attack, a Homeland Security official told The Cable.
"She was referencing that at that time, there was no evidence to suggest that there were other trucks parked with explosives in other parts of New York or other cities across the country," the official said. "Law enforcement expects that kind of threat assessment from us."
That's quite different from saying that bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad was acting alone. Leading critics are already complaining that Napolitano's "one-off" comment has been proven wrong by revelations that he has admitted to having trained in Pakistan, according to a complaint (pdf) filed Tuesday in the Southern District of New York, and that he received "a series of calls from Pakistan" after he bought the Nissan SUV that he later used to carry the failed bomb.
If she were alleging that, she would have used the term "lone wolf," according to the official.
"She not afraid to use the term lone wolf and has many times," the official said. "But in this case that was not what she was talking about."`
Making any "definitive statement" about a fresh attack or attempt is unwise, according to Frances Townsend, a former top DHS official and counterterrorism advisor in the Bush White House. Townsend nonetheless praised the overall government response to the incident, as did Napolitano in a press briefing today touting Shahzad's arrest.
"Immediately after an attack you've got to be careful," said Townsend, noting that the New York Police Department took a more cautious tone. "She thinks she didn't go further than the facts at the time. What she made was a very definitive statement and inevitably those statements turn out to be wrong."
"She went through this once before," leading Democratic strategist Paul Begala said on CNN. "The first reports are always wrong. You just don't know where, you don't know how. ... She seemed not to have learned that lesson. We don't know if this is a one-off, yet."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.