No, Madam Secretary: The System Is Not Working
To prevent would-be terrorists like Umar Abdulmutallab from slipping through the cracks, the Obama administration must rethink its approach to homeland security.
As someone who generally considers himself a supporter of the Obama administration -- and who recognizes the exceptionally complex and at times intractable nature of the problems it faces -- I watched with a sense of deep dismay on Sunday as Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano attempted to defend the handling of would-be terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. According to Napolitano, the fact that ordinary passengers stepped in and intervened to stop Abdulmutallab's failed effort to down a U.S. airliner is a positive sign that the "system is working smoothly." In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth -- and this fiasco is only further evidence of the ongoing mismanagement of U.S. national security.
As someone who generally considers himself a supporter of the Obama administration — and who recognizes the exceptionally complex and at times intractable nature of the problems it faces — I watched with a sense of deep dismay on Sunday as Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano attempted to defend the handling of would-be terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. According to Napolitano, the fact that ordinary passengers stepped in and intervened to stop Abdulmutallab’s failed effort to down a U.S. airliner is a positive sign that the "system is working smoothly." In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth — and this fiasco is only further evidence of the ongoing mismanagement of U.S. national security.
Although this breakdown began during the chaos of the last Bush administration, Obama and his advisors are now looking down the barrel at their own "Brownie" moment — when Bush publicly praised Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown for his response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. The current administration does not seem to grasp that the solution lies in finally fixing the system, not more empty excuses or a further expansion of ineffective bureaucratic policies.
Indeed, the Obama administration must fundamentally rethink the U.S. approach to homeland security. There is very little reason to believe that — even with the added security measures now in place — the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would be capable of finding and stopping the next Abdulmutallab. Neither taking a laptop bag apart piece by piece nor sharply limiting carry-on luggage would have had any significance to Abdulmutallab, who carried just one small bag and had carefully secreted an incendiary device inside his underwear. It is doubtful that anything less than a full strip search would have revealed his plans. Disabling onboard GPS flight maps means precious little to anyone with a window seat — it doesn’t take a great deal of intellectual acumen to simply peer out the window and tell the difference between empty ocean and heavily populated urban areas.
More broadly, the notion of stopping terrorists when they are already inside airports, or even airplanes en route to the United States, is not only foolish, but reckless. This bizarre fortress mentality is bound for inevitable (and spectacular) failure. The United States is essentially a free country and, realistically, creative adversaries will always find a loophole to exploit. The real way to keep intended terrorists out of the United States is not to force wheelchair-bound seniors to take their shoes off when boarding a flight, nor to have mothers sip their pre-packaged infant formula. Terrorism is not a mass phenomenon. It is a problem of a small number of people working in groups of twos and threes. The real answer to this challenge is intelligence — and recognizing the threat long before it ever reaches U.S. shores.
It so happens that — as of late — some of the most important incoming intelligence leads have not originated from spy satellites or undercover operatives, but rather from the frightened families of young men who have fallen under the sway of al Qaeda. For both the group of Minnesotans who left their homes to join al-Shabaab in Somalia and the five Americans from Washington D.C. arrested by Pakistani police en route to the Taliban, families came forward with critical information allowing U.S. government agencies to jump into action. If Abdulmutallab’s banker father is truthful in asserting that he repeatedly sent warnings to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria, there simply is no excuse for ignoring him. The elder Abdulmutallab is a wealthy and well-regarded member of Nigerian society, who owns properties in London and the United States. His statements are hardly the equivalent of anonymous 911 tips from teenage pranksters. It would have taken a minimal amount of effort to ensure that this man’s son was never allowed to board a U.S.-bound airliner. Traveling to the United States as a foreign national is not an absolute right. It is already a heavily regulated privilege.
Even the United States’ enemies are starting to recognize how threadbare our current approach to gathering, sharing, and interpreting intelligence is. In describing the e-mail exchanges between himself and alleged Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Malik Nidal Hasan, radical Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki smugly boasted of how Hasan had sought explicit advice on the killing of U.S. soldiers and Jews. Awlaki scoffed, "I wonder where were the American security forces who once claimed that they can read the numbers of any license plate, anywhere in the world, from space." Indeed, one is only left to wonder what other critical warning signs are being missed by our often piecemeal effort to address terrorist threats.
If Obama truly wishes to bring his slogan of "change" to his nation’s counterterrorism strategy, he should avoid falling into the trap of his predecessors. He should resist the urge to sweep shortcomings under the rug in order to save face and score political points. The country’s homeland security efforts require leadership that takes responsibility for marshaling the tremendous technological, financial, and human resources of the United States and puts them to proper use. Scanning millions of airline passengers in the hopes of finding a needle in a haystack is clearly not the right way to tackle this issue. Relying on civilians to step in and fill the gaps left by the CIA, FBI, and DHS is obviously not the answer either. Nearly a decade after the events of September 11, 2001, the American public is owed a frank explanation of how the system has failed, and a fresh approach to ensuring their safety.
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