Republicans attack Barack Obama's response to attempted flight bombing

Party accuses president of being soft on terrorism in aftermath of al-Qaida attempt to bring down flight in Detroit

Republicans broke with the tradition of publicly backing a president during a national security crisis when they accused Barack Obama of endangering Americans and being soft on terror over al-Qaida's attempt to bomb a transatlantic flight.

Democratic party leaders hit back by saying the president's opponents were seeking to make political gain out of the failed attack above Detroit by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Some of the strongest criticism has come from the former vice-president Dick Cheney, who accused Obama of weakening US security.

"President Obama is trying to pretend we are not at war," Cheney said.

"He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people we won't be at war."

Pete Hoekstra, the senior Republican on the House of Representatives intelligence committee, shocked even some in his own party by sending out a fundraising email denouncing Obama and his officials over the failed bombing.

"Since President Obama took office he and his leftwing cronies have taken steps to undermine the work of our brave men and women who work tirelessly to keep us safe," he wrote.

The attacks have infuriated Democrats because they breach the convention of political solidarity – or at least silence – in times of security crisis.

The White House said the president had regularly described the US as being at war with terrorists.

The chairman of the Democratic congressional campaign committee, Chris Van Hollen, said: "It just goes to show how extreme and out of touch House Republicans have become that their members would try to score political points and even raise money off the terror plot to blow up a plane and kill innocent Americans at Christmas."

Other Republicans have criticised the president for taking three days to make a public statement on the attempted bombing.

However, Democrats have noted that George Bush took six days to speak publicly about a failed attack by the shoe bomber Richard Reid in December 2001.

But by then – only weeks after the 9/11 attacks – Bush's national security credentials were not in question, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

"Bush had special advantages after 9/11 but Republican presidents are generally viewed as tough on national security, Democratic presidents as potentially soft," he said.

"These are the images that have been fixed in the public mind since Vietnam. Obama ran as an anti-Iraq war candidate and he has little foreign policy experience."

In the aftermath of the foiled attack the homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, captured the headlines when she claimed the system "worked smoothly".

Her department appeared to be grasping to be seen to be doing something when it barred passengers from leaving their seats or having blankets or personal items on their laps on the last hour of flights to the US, only to rescind the measures two days later.

Growing evidence that the attempted bombing was planned in Yemen means Obama will almost certainly be unable to implement his plan to return more than 90 Yemenis held at Guantánamo Bay to their homeland as he prepares to close the prison.

However, Republicans will need to tread carefully. Abdulmutallab is suspected of links with al-Qaida leaders in Yemen who were formerly held at Guantánamo until being released by the Bush administration two years ago.


Chris McGreal in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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