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Learning From the “Out of Context” Alibi in the Underwear Bomb Case

BY IN BLOG On 05-01-2010

(This entry was originally posted on January 5, 2010)

On Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, was subdued by crew and passengers when he tried to blow up the Northwest Airlines Airbus bound for Detroit from Amsterdam.  Abdulmutallab had packed his briefs with a high explosive known at PETN, but rather than destroying the aircraft, he succeeded only in burning his pants, legs and perhaps– as many hope — sensitive areas of his anatomy. (These has been an unnecessarily prudish veil thrown over communication with the media about the location and extent of injuries Abdulmutallab sustained.)


On to the teachable moment:  Two days later, on December 27,  Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared on three Sunday news shows and wound up setting off her own little explosion when she used the phrase “the system worked.”  Those words were criticized and ridiculed by those who reasoned that if the system had worked, Abdulmutallab would never have been on the plane in the first place since: his own father fingered him as a radical Islamist at a meeting with CIA agents in Nigeria; his British visa had been pulled; he paid cash for his one-way ticket to the U.S., and he had no checked baggage.

The following day, Monday, December 28, Napolitano was back-peddling about the system working and said that the criticism had come about because her remarks on the Sunday interview shows had been taken out of context.

Had they? Since “I was taken out of context” is a near universal alibi for unfortunate statements to the media, I went back and read the transcripts of her three Sunday morning interviews.  Let’s look at what she said, bearing in mind that on that Sunday no one knew for sure if the Nigerian had packed his shorts with explosives at the behest of Al-Qaeda, some other terrorist outfit or was just a freelance jihadist. True, he was claiming an Al-Qaeda link, but that Sunday the investigation was in its early stages. We did know, at that point, that the material Abdulmutallab attempted to ignite was the same compound used by Richard Reid, the Al-Qaeda shoe bomber, in his failed attempt to bring down an American Airlines flight over the Atlantic in December, 2001.

Here is the relevant part of the secretary’s Meet the Press appearance:

QUESTION:  Let me start by asking you, the suspect allegedly was carrying a compound on his body of PETN.  That was the same chemical compound that the “Shoe Bomber,” Richard Reid, had on him some eight years ago.  The fact that he had this very same compound, does this, to you, represent a failure of security to detect?

ANSWER:  Well, I think we don’t know enough to say one way or the other in that respect.  The forensics are still being done, the investigation is still underway.  I think the important point here is that once the incident occurred, everybody reacted the way they should; the passengers did, the flight crew did.  And literally, within an hour, additional measures had been instituted not only on the ground here in the United States, but abroad and, indeed, on the 128 flights that were already in the air from Europe.

Let’s analyze her answer.  Or, more accurately, her non-answer.  The question was about detecting PETN, not about passengers and flight crew subduing a terrorist with his pants on fire and certainly not about notifying other aircraft that an incident had taken place.  So on the face of it, Napolitano was being evasive.  She was using the classic acknowledge, bridge, positive point technique: acknowledge the tough question with a short form answer, build a bridge and make your positive message point.  The only problem with her approach was that instead of acknowledging the actual question with a short form answer, she dodged it.  An less evasive answer with a transition to her point might have been: “Yes, there was a failure to detect this compound.  We are still looking into why that was.”  She could then have said, “There are multiple layers in the system.  So after the initial lapse resulted in his getting aboard, the rest of the system worked. The crew and passengers were able to restrain him and we were able to alert all 128 inbound flights from Europe.”  Instead she said “we don’t know enough to say one way or the other in that respect.”  She did not use the “system worked” phrase here.  So while she was evasive, she gave critics little to hang their hats on.

Next up, the secretary appeared on  ABC’s This Week where she was interviewed by Jake Tapper,  and delivered this line:  “I think the important thing to recognize here is that once this incident occurred, everything happened that should have. The passengers reacted correctly, the crew reacted correctly, [and] within an hour to 90 minutes, all 128 flights in the air had been notified. And those flights already had taken mitigation measures on the off-chance that there was somebody else also flying with some sort of destructive intent. So the system has worked really very, very smoothly over the course of the past several days.”  Reporters picking up “The system has worked really, very, very smoothly” out of that answer certainly would have been taking that out of context.  But they didn’t have to do that because Napolitano failed to supply the context in her next interview, on CNN’s State of the Union.

On the CNN show, Interviewer Candy Crowley asked:  “Do you think — has there been any evidence of the Al Qaeda ties that this suspect has been claiming? “  And here’s where the secretary got into trouble.  Her answer:

“Right now, that is part of the criminal justice investigation that is ongoing, and I think it would be inappropriate to speculate as to whether or not he has such ties. What we are focused on is making sure that the air [travel] environment remains safe, that people are confident when they travel. And 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. “

This is the one the critics seized on because she said, “the system worked” without qualifying it as she had on ABC with “once this incident occurred.”  Were reporters and critics taking her out of context by quoting her CNN answer?   Not really, because she, herself, failed to supply the context as she had done on the other shows.

The next day on NBC’s Today Show, Matt Lauer, wrested the “out of context” claim from the secretary.  Here is that exchange:

LAUER: “You made a comment over the weekend and I want to call attention to that because a lot of people are disagreeing with it this morning.  You talked about this incident aboard this Northwest flight and you said ‘when it came right down to it, the system worked.’  A lot of people don’t think the system worked at all, that the only thing that prevented outright disaster was luck.  Can you respond to that?” [Incidentally, Lauer misquoted Napolitano.  She did not say, “when it came right down it….”]


NAPOLITANO: “Sure, I think the comment is being taken out of context. What I’m saying is that once the incident occurred, moving forward, we were immediately able to notify the 128 flights in the air of 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, so….”


LAUER: “So you’re only talking about what happened after this man tried to ignite this explosive device on the plane.”




LAUER: “You would then concede that the system prior to that, the system that’s supposed to prevent something like this from happening, failed miserably?”


NAPOLITANO: “It did.  And that’s why we are asking a lot of the same questions I heard you asking before this interview.  How did this individual get on the plane? Why wasn’t the explosive material detected?  What do we need to do to change perhaps the rules that have been in place since 2006 for moving somebody from the generic database to more elevated status.  All of that under review right now.”


The lessons from this episode: If you’ve got a positive message to get out when responding to a crisis or a negative situation, you’re responsible for putting it in context.  And you need to do it  -every time you address the matter.  How much better (and less evasive) would Napolitano have appeared if she had said in every interview: “There was a terrible failure to keep this man off the plane in the first place, but the other elements of the system worked — crew training, passenger alertness and our notification system all worked.


Oh, another lessons to be taken away from this incident, one that has nothing whatsoever with media mastery: Al Qaeda doesn’t like Christmas — Richard Reid tried his shoe bomb just before the holiday and Abdulmutallab ignited his pants and legs on Christmas day.  So maybe our security authorities might want to think about being especially vigilant come next December.


And, finally, in the Closing the Barn Door After the Horse has Fled Category: on January 4, ten days after the incident, the State Department revoked Abdulmutallab’s visa to visit the United States.  That, too,  has absolutely nothing to do with media mastery, but I thought everyone would take comfort from the fact that in addition to being an accused terrorist, now Abdulmutallab is an illegal alien as well.







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George Merlis

George Merlis is the founder and president of Experience Media Consulting. He is an award-winning veteran print and broadcast journalist who has been doing media training, presentation training and crisis communications consulting for more than two decades. He has been day city editor of the nation's largest-circulation afternoon newspaper and executive producer of two of the three network morning news programs, Good Morning American and the CBS Morning News. He also served as executive producer of Entertainment Tonight.