Under fire since attack attempt, Obama hits security concerns

President Barack Obama used a portion of his State of the Union speech Wednesday to burnish his national security bona fides, which have taken a beating in the weeks since the attempted Christmas Day bombing.

He acknowledged the intelligence failures preceding the near takedown of a passenger jet, but stressed that his administration has done more to fight al-Qaeda than the George W. Bush administration had done the year before leaving office.

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“Since the day I took office, we have renewed our focus on the terrorists who threaten our nation,” he said. “We have made substantial investments in our homeland security and disrupted plots that threatened to take American lives.”

“We are filling unacceptable gaps revealed by the failed Christmas attack, with better airline security and swifter action on our intelligence,” he said. “…And in the last year, hundreds of al-Qaeda’s fighters and affiliates, including many senior leaders, have been captured or killed – far more than in 2008.”

Republicans have been increasingly training their fire on Obama’s record on national security, bolstered by recent criticism from intelligence experts about the information-sharing failures that led to the Christmas Day bombing attempt and continued in its immediate aftermath.

Senate Republicans emerged from their annual strategy session Wednesday hammering a series of the president’s national security policies, from the decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and try the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a New York City court, to the failure to consult key intelligence agency officials before reading the Christmas Day bombing suspect his Miranda rights after just 50 minutes of interrogation by the FBI.

“I would hope the president would focus on the area of national security and start to clear up the confusion we have on detainees,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters. “We are treating these terrorists as if they were domestic criminals who knocked off a convenience store. They get a lawyer and they shut up…I’d like to see the president reverse this policy.”

Earlier Tuesday, five senior Republicans called on Attorney General Eric Holder to answer new and troubling questions surrounding the decision to treat the suspected Christmas Day bomber as a civilian defendant.

The signers are McConnell and Sens. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), the vice chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, John McCain (R-Ariz.), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

McConnell pointed to Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts and Bob McDonnell’s gubernatorial win in Virginia last November as signs of the shifting mood of the electorate to favor Republicans. He referred to a new poll by National Public Radio showing a five-point advantage for Republicans over Democrats right now when likely voters were asked whom they would prefer on a hypothetical ballot.

“It’s clear the people are angry and frustrated and they think there’s a disconnect between what Washington is doing and what they think Washington should be doing.”

McConnell’s comments come just one day after leaders of the commission that investigated the failures related to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks said the Obama administration mishandled the interrogation of the failed Christmas Day bomber and criticized the president for not devoting more attention to fighting terrorism and stepping into arbitrate turf battles between intelligence agencies.

Democrats on Capitol Hill defended Obama’s record, arguing that he has made fighting terrorism in Yemen a top priority even before the attempted attack on Northwest Flight 253. They also say Obama has gone a long way in re-shifting the focus and the resources from Iraq to Afghanistan and fighting terrorism.

“The Obama administration has been on the offense on al-Qaeda,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaing Committee. “This is a bipartisan issue and we should be working together to fight terrorism, not playing politics with the issue.”

In his speech, Obama called on both parties to come together and unite the country on national security issues and stop the partisan sniping.

“All of us love this country. All of us are committed to its defense,” he said. “So let’s put aside the schoolyard taunts about who is tough.”

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who is running for governor in Michigan, has been one of the most vocal critics of the administration on everything from closing Guantanamo Bay to trying terrorist suspects in civilian courts.

Hoekstra opened a new line of attack based on a Wednesday Washington Post story chronicling the intelligence agencies and Department of Defense’s involvement in helping Yemen target and kill leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in that country, the affiliate operating in that country.

According to the story, the Obama administration has extended a CIA authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence exists that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States. Bush first gave the CIA the power to do so after the Sept. 11 attacks after secret legal deliberations over whether killing a U.S. citizen was legal and ethical.

The story said the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command maintains list of individuals called “High Value Targets,” whom they seek to kill or capture. The list includes three Americans, according to the Washington Post article.

Hoekstra said he was unaware that the Obama administration has allowed the CIA to maintain such a list and said intelligence agencies never briefed him about it even though he is a member of the gang of eight, the group of senior Democrats and Republicans on key intelligence committees the administration is required to brief.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office did not respond to a request for comment by press time on whether she had been briefed.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a member of the intelligence panel, said he did not recall being briefed about a CIA target list that contains American citizens.