President Barack Obama’s passing remark about the prospect of a nuclear explosion in New York wasn’t meant as an indication of any real known threat, a White House spokeswoman said today.
“The president was not discussing intelligence when he said, ‘I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan,’” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in an e-mailed response to a question.
Obama’s comment came at the closing a multinational Nuclear Security Summit at The Hague yesterday. At a news conference, he was downplaying the power that Russia holds over his national security agenda in its annexation of Crimea, and trying to highlight the importance of the summit and its goal of monitoring and controlling nuclear weapons material so that it doesn’t fall into the hands of terrorists.
“Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors,” Obama said. “I continue to be much more concerned when it comes to our security with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”
The remark caught the attention of Comedy Central, where late-night “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart found fodder for a spoof of the traveling president’s warning.
“I think he just made a boo boo,” Stewart said on last night’s program, playing a tape of Obama’s Manhattan comment.
It also spawned tabloid headlines.
Still, authorities said, the remark serves as a reminder of continual threats faced by the nation’s most populous city.
“The president’s comment is a sobering reminder that New York City remains a top terror target, which is why we all must remain vigilant when it comes to the threats facing our city,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “I have full confidence in the NYPD’s ability to keep our city safe.”
Like the White House, the New York Police Department dismissed the notion of any known threat.
“For years the NYPD has recognized the fact that Manhattan is considered a potential terror target,” the department said in an e-mailed statement. “We continue to maintain an appropriate level of security according to on-going threat assessments. There are currently no known threats of this nature against the city.”
Raymond Kelly, who served 12 years as New York City police commissioner, said he is “glad that the president acknowledges the consistent threat that we face in New York City. There’s a consensus of the intelligence community that New York is the No. 1 target in the United States.”
“I don’t consider it a gaffe,” Kelly said of Obama’s comment. “I think it was a frank statement of one of the many things that a president has to be concerned about.”
Noting that “there are thousands of radiation detection devices that are deployed throughout the city and the surrounding area and there are regular exercises to see how well the system works,” the former commissioner said: “To my knowledge nothing has materially changed but it has been a constant issue of concern for the city.”
Regardless of its intent, the president’s remark, a little more than a decade after Manhattan and the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C., suffered the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history, raised eyebrows in the U.S.
“The president was trying to say he is more worried about a NYC terrorist attack than a regional power like Russia, but the remark has backfired,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at The Brookings Institution in Washington. “It has generated jokes, fear-mongering, and considerable misunderstanding about what he was saying.”
“In delicate international matters, it is better for chief executives to be clear and direct and not argue through metaphors,” West said in an e-mail. “Those things always get misunderstood and misinterpreted.”
With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army deployed in Crimea and along the border of eastern Ukraine, Comedy Central’s Stewart asked last night, how concerned should the U.S. be? First playing Obama’s remark about Russia representing only a “regional power,” and then the line about a nuclear weapon in Manhattan, Stewart paused, speechless for several seconds before whispering about a presidential “boo boo.”
The New York Daily News pictured a glowing mushroom cloud in the Manhattan skyline on its front page with the headline: “Thanks for sharing!”
It asked the question: “A nuke in NYC, Mr. President?”
The New York Post ran an online headline: “Obama’s top fear is Manhattan getting nuked,” with a photo of the skyline. And in print, the Post’s front-page headline read: “Obama: My Greatest Fear -- Manhattan Nuke.”
“As he said,” Hayden said, “concern about nuclear terrorism and the need to eliminate the threat it poses is the reason why the United States organized the Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 and continues to keep it high on the international agenda.”
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s panel on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, told Newsday that Obama was right to remind people that New York remains a prime target.
“Over the years, the nightmare scenario has been a dirty bomb going off in New York,” King said, adding that “terrorism is not part of a country or state.”
“As far as a nation,” he said, “as far as a country we face, it would be Russia” that poses the top threat.