By Susan Crabtree - 02/04/10 01:01 AM EST
House Democrats on the Homeland Security Committee on Thursday will meet with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano for the first time since she missed a hearing on the attempted Christmas Day bombing.
The announcement of the meeting was sent out the evening of Jan. 27 — after Napolitano skipped a hearing earlier that day and Democrats openly seethed about her absence.
Later, sources familiar with Napolitano’s schedule said she was in her office consulting with members of an unspecified think tank. She dispatched Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute to testify on her behalf.
The hearing was scheduled to examine the biggest security breach on Napolitano’s watch: the attempted Christmas Day suicide bombing of Northwest Flight 253.
House Homeland Security Committee spokesman Adam Comis said Thursday’s meeting was planned months ago and had nothing to do with Napolitano’s absence at last week’s hearing. He declined to say why Republicans were not included in the gathering, noting only that she will testify before the panel on the Homeland Security budget Feb. 11.
“This meeting has been in the works for months and we applaud the Secretary’s consistent responsiveness,” Comis said in an e-mail. “Secretary Napolitano will also probably have a bipartisan meeting with committee members in the upcoming weeks and will be testifying before the committee in a public forum on the 11th, as previously reported.”
Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said the meeting has been in the works since early December.
“We have been working to schedule this meeting since early December as part of the secretary’s regular engagement with the House Homeland Security Committee,” he said.
Napolitano had told committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) that she needed to miss the hearing because of a trip to Europe to discuss aviation security. In fact, she returned Monday and even talked to Thompson late that day or early Tuesday, although she failed to let him know she was back in the country, he said during the hearing.
That evening, Napolitano showed up at the Capitol to attend President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address.
During the hearing, Democrats openly and angrily expressed their concern about Napolitano’s absence. Carney, who chairs the Subcommittee on Management, Investigations and Oversight, was the most vocal.
“I am very dismayed that the secretary herself isn’t here. I mean, it’s probably fair to ask: Where the hell is Secretary Napolitano?” he demanded.
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), who chairs the Subcommittee on Intelligence, also openly griped about Napolitano’s failure to show.
“I would like to welcome our witnesses but comment on the absence of Secretary Napolitano. This is the committee with primary jurisdiction over the Department of Homeland Security. She is the secretary of Homeland Security. She is in Washington, D.C. She was invited to testify at this very important hearing, and she should have been here. … I am very personally disappointed that she isn’t here.”
Thompson publicly scolded Napolitano for snubbing the panel, noting that he had spoken to her two days before and there had been no discussion of her not attending. He did not want his committee to be “misled,” he said.
“Staff did communicate, based on a directive that we received that the secretary would not be here, and we worked on Assistant Secretary Lute’s presence,” Thompson said during the hearing. “That changed, and, at a minimum, based on that change, somebody could have communicated back to the committee one way or the other that we [were] told that you weren’t going to be here, we are here now, but we still can’t come because of some other things. That is the courtesy, I think, the committee still deserves. It does not require comment.”
Chandler called the comments during the hearing “unfortunate,” noting that the department and the committee agreed to have Lute testify two weeks before the hearing.
“No concerns were raised in the multiple conversations and briefings that the secretary, deputy secretary and other staff have had with members and staff since then,” he said. “The secretary is ready and willing to appear before Congress, as evidenced by her two testimonies the week of Jan. 18 and four additional hearings at which she will appear in early February.”
Thompson had previously expressed concern to The Hill about Napolitano’s absence from the first briefing after the holiday recess on the attempted Christmas Day bombing.
At the time, Napolitano had been under fire for telling CNN two days after the attempted bombing that the “system worked.” The comments were widely ridiculed and caused some critics to charge that she was in over her head.
Some Republicans, who had already blasted her for calling terrorist acts “man-caused disasters,” along with some of her other remarks, have been calling for her resignation since the spring. The comments about the Christmas Day bombing, which was stopped when the explosive mixture used did not properly detonate and passengers and crew on the flight interceded, revived calls for her ouster.
Napolitano, who early last summer was on Obama’s shortlist for the Supreme Court seat Sonia Sotomayor eventually won, quickly tried to clarify her remarks, noting that her comment that the “system worked” was referring to the interagency cooperation in the aftermath of the attempt.