Stolberg Paints Picture of Ever-Vigilant Obama, Omits Jim Clapper's Intelligence Lapse

In Wednesday's puff piece from Obama's holiday in Hawaii, "Obama's Traveling Team Stays Focused on Terrorism," reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg portrayed the president as a take-charge type, while using careful word choice to steerhim blame away from Obama self for the anti-terrorist failures that occurred over Christmas 2009.


President Obama was peeved. It was Christmas 2009 and a Nigerian had been accused of trying to blow up a plane bound for Detroit. Mr. Obama was supposed to have state-of-the-art secure telecommunications capabilities inside his luxury beachfront rental home here. Instead, he was stuck relying on operators to connect him to his top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan. Once, as he was trying to reach Mr. Brennan, the call dropped.

The president made his displeasure clear. This year, he has Mr. Brennan on speed dial.

The communications upgrade - Mr. Obama now has "more diverse and reliable secure voice capability in his vacation residence, with the best possible quality available," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser traveling with him - is just one example of how the memory of the attempted bombing last Christmas Day hangs over the presidential Hawaiian escape. Mr. Obama and his advisers, still smarting over the criticism they received for the seemingly flat-footed response, have gone into overdrive to prepare for what counterterrorism experts say is a heightened threat this holiday season.

In recent weeks, concerns about terrorism in Europe have spiked, with intelligence officials reporting increased chatter about threats. Two weeks ago, the British arrested 12 men in three cities in connection with suspected plots, including a possible attack on the American Embassy in London. There have been arrests in Spain and alarms in Germany over reported threats of an attack. Dutch authorities arrested 12 Somalis last weekend, and American counterterrorism officials are on higher alert in part because of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric whose English-language online broadcasts are inspiring extremists in this country.

Against that backdrop, the White House has made substantive and public relations changes to Mr. Obama's vacation, adopting what Juan C. Zarate, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, calls a strategy of "taking no chances and assuming the worst."

Stolberg mentioned the British plot without noting a detail that raked against the grain of its portrayal of a newly vigilant White House. That would be the embarrassing public flub committed on December 21 by Obama's Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, who seemed unaware of the recent terrorist arrests in London in an interview with Diane Sawyer of ABC's World News Tonight. (The Times covered the Clapper flap on December 23.)

Stolberg eventually addressed the "image-making" aspects of the makeover:

Part of it is presidential image-making, with an eye on politics. David Rothkopf, who advised President Bill Clinton on national security and is now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of Mr. Obama, "I think politically he is very aware that, come 2012, one of the Republican tropes will be that he's not tough enough on security, and I think he sees that as an area of potential exposure."