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Blame game won't stop terrorism

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. His new book is "Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security -- From World War II to the War on Terrorism" published by Basic Books. Zelizer writes widely about current events.

Princeton, New Jersey (CNN) -- Almost as soon as the botched Christmas airplane bombing hit the airwaves, the politics of national security reared its head.

Many Republicans quickly attacked President Obama for being responsible for the fact that Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab was able to walk onto an airplane with dangerous explosives despite the fact that the government had received warnings about him. They argued that the failure proved the White House was weak on terrorism.

"Soft talk about engagement, closing Gitmo," warned South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint, "these things are not going to appease the terrorists..." Representative Dan Burton of Indiana called for Janet Napolitano, who said the system "had worked," to step down. Napolitano, said Burton, "does not have the background or experience necessary to execute her responsibilities." Former Vice President Dick Cheney asked of the president, "Why doesn't he want to admit we're at war."

Some Democrats had responses of their own, pointing out that DeMint has been preventing the confirmation of Obama's appointment to head the Transportation Security Administration, Eroll Southers. And some Democrats accused Republicans of having voted against appropriations for the Department of Homeland Security.

Majority Leader Harry Reid said that, "Despite his qualifications and being reported out by two Senate committees earlier this year, Republicans have decided to play politics with this nomination by blocking final confirmation. Not only is this a failed strategy, but a dangerous one as well with serious potential consequences for our country."

All of this is predictable. Politics has never stopped at the water's edge and it never will. There is a long history of the parties lashing out against one another for being ineffective at protecting the nation. However, partisan wrangling is certainly not the most effective way to handle the problems at hand.

Politics has never stopped at the water's edge and it never will.
--Julian Zelizer

While politicians play the blame game when things go wrong -- looking for the individual at fault -- what is more important is to look at public policies and government institutions to understand how our system in fact did not work. In this case, we are talking about the policies of multiple countries.

Following a massive reorganization of homeland security that was undertaken in the wake of 9/11 -- from shoe checks at airports to extensive surveillance programs -- it is hard for many Americans to understand how AbdulMutallab could board an airplane in Nigeria and in Amsterdam, given what authorities knew, with explosives in his underpants.

Obama was spot on when he said that the airline incident had resulted from a "systematic failure" in our counterterrorism operations. "When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted on as it should have been, so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could cost nearly 300 lives, a systematic failure has occurred," he said.

Rather than spending the next few months with each party attacking the other for being responsible, what would be more useful is to have a bipartisan and independent 9/11 Commission-style review of our homeland security programs to see where the holes are and where the system can be improved.

While Obama has promised a review of intelligence systems under the direction of John O. Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism advisor, a much broader analysis will be needed -- one that covers the entire homeland security system, is independent of the executive branch, and is bipartisan in the composition of its membership. The panel would have to invite testimony from allies from around the world to better understand how the global anti-terrorism program is working.

The Christmas incident made clear several problems. The first is that we are still having trouble connecting the dots. This was one of the main problems that revealed in the examination into 9/11; authorities had a substantial amount of information about the perpetrators but they failed to share it with each other or to put the story together.

Intelligence agents from this country are usually dealing with scattered and incomplete information. But given how much was known in this case, including Britain's decision to deny renewal of his visa and to put him on a list to prohibit him from coming back into the U.K., as well as warnings that the CIA had heard from his father, there seems to have been sufficient evidence for international authorities at some point in this process to take stronger preemptive action.

A second question has to do with airline security. Once the decision was made to allow him to fly, it is simply confounding that he was able to bring high explosives on board with relative ease. As UCLA professor Amy Zegart, the author of the best book on intelligence reform, recently told the New York Times: "This textbook Al Qaeda 2001. They tried to hit the hardest target we have, the one on which the most money and attention has been spent since 2001. And yet we didn't prevent it."

The government must review our airline security program. In Politico, Josh Gerstein provided a useful analysis of issues that must receive more consideration now. For example, more thought will have to be given to allowing for the assemblage of a more expansive "no-fly" list. Governments will need to think about additional funding for installing whole-body imaging technology for airports that has been slowed down by privacy concerns and budgetary limitations.

And finally, this failure must raise questions about what happens when someone does get through. The passengers on the airlines were fortunate that the explosives did not work and that the attendants and passengers performed heroically by subduing the terrorist. Yet we can't always count on such a response.

There has been a ongoing debate about expanding the number of air marshals on airplanes and training other personnel so that they can better handle these kinds of situations. The Israeli airline, El Al, has famously depended on having undercover air marshals on their flights as one component of its successful deterrent strategy. Doing this on every flight would of course be prohibitive, but it is worth considering whether we are doing enough to provide flights enough marshals as a last line of defense.

These are just some of the questions to come out of this incident that must be examined.

The blame game will continue. That's how national security politics works. But while the fights are taking place, we must make certain that the government sets up some kind of independent review to better understand what went wrong. The review must be global and involve allied nations who participate in the international campaign against terrorist threats. Let's do it before the terrorists get it right.

Nothing should be excluded from consideration, from the failures of U.S. officials to respond to evidence to the flaws in the system that Obama inherited. We need a comprehensive understanding of what happened so we can improve the system and make sure that innocent travelers are kept safe from the ravages of terrorism.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.