PHOENIX -- Sen. Jon Kyl said he doesn't "feel totally safe" with Janet Napolitano at the helm of the Department of Homeland Security, given that agency's handling of the attempt to blow up a Detroit bound airliner.
At a press conference Tuesday, Kyl and fellow Sen. John McCain, both Republicans, detailed what they said was a breakdown of security that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab not only to board the plane but to be carrying explosives.
Kyl said it was bad enough that the Nigerian got on the plane in the first place given what should have been warning signals. But in response to a question about whether he feels secure with Napolitano heading Homeland Security, he said that is only part of the problem.
"I don't feel totally safe when we continue to have breakdowns such as occurred here," he said.
"There's a lot more that has to be done," Kyl explained. "And I'd feel more comfortable if the people who were responsible acknowledged in the very beginning that this is terrorism, that it may well be connected to other terrorists around the globe, and there are reasons to fix the system rather than trying to assure us that everything worked as it was supposed to."
Sara Kuban, the press secretary for Homeland Security, said at least some of what led to the Christmas day incident predates Napolitano's tenure. Kuban said the administration "is determined to find and fix the shortcomings in the system developed over the last several years" that led to the suspect being able to board the plane.
As to the charges by the two GOP senators, Kuban said Napolitano is focused on enhancing security, "not on the political back and forth that has come to define so much Washington."
Much of the criticism of Napolitano and the agency she runs stems from her comments following the botched bombing that "the system worked," comments that she has since reconsidered.
President Obama himself, in a statement issued Tuesday while he was on vacation in Hawaii, also distanced himself somewhat from Napolitano's claims.
He agreed with her that, after the suspect attempted to take down the flight, "it's clear that passengers and crew, our homeland security systems and our aviation security took all appropriate actions."
"But what's also clear is this: When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon as it should have been, so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred," the president continued. "And I consider that totally unacceptable."
McCain said the fact the terrorist was subdued by passengers before being able to set off his bomb does not mean the agency, headed by the former Arizona governor, was doing its job. He said it needs to do more than just check passengers at the airport.
"That's the end of the line," McCain said.
"The beginning of the line is when this person goes to Yemen and gets training, and that person's father notifies U.S. authorities that his son is an extremist, that when that person pays cash for a ticket, when that person is on a watch list," he continued. "Those are the things you need to address so you're not getting it at the end of the line at the airport which is the most vulnerable point."
Kyl said he agrees that Homeland Security, with its focus on airport checkpoints, continues to look at on the wrong things.
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"You can do a lot of things to inconvenience Americans," he said.
"That's what terrorists want us to do," Kyl continued. "You can make it take us three hours to get through an airport for every legitimate flyer in this country or wanting to get to this country."
But he said the real answer is being able to recognize threats long before someone is on line, what with all the information that was available about the Nigerian citizen before he even boarded the plane.
"If you can't put all of those things together -- and you can do that with computers in real time -- then you're never going to be able to stop a more sophisticated terrorist, particularly one who might have better luck than this guy did," Kyl said.
McCain's comments about Napolitano were more muted than his colleague.
"I respect the president's choice and I want to work with her as much as possible," he said.
Napolitano had been Arizona's governor until Obama picked her for the homeland security post. Both Kyl and McCain supported her appointment and spoke favorably of it at the beginning of her Senate confirmation hearing.
Kyl had said "she will bring a wealth of experience to the department" and that her "distinguished career" had prepared her well for the position.
Kyl said one way to keep this country safer is to reauthorize the Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the 2001 attacks to give the government more power to monitor for terrorists and to collect and share intelligence. He said "the Left" is trying to undermine that in the name of civil rights.
"Stop this funny business of saying political correctness has to prevent us from connecting dots, when it's pretty clear that if you did connect the dots, you'd put somebody on a 'no fly' zone," Kyl said.
He said the law is there to get all the information needed, like the warning from the father, the cash payment, the lack of luggage and a report that the British government had denied him a visa.
"Those are dots that you connect," Kyl said.
He said the solution goes beyond breathing new life into the Patriot Act "without further restriction." Kyl said there also need to be mechanisms in place to allow various agencies to combine all that information and then take "appropriate action."
"I think that is what this administration hasn't adequately done," Kyl said.