By James Breedlove
The unease that has infected Americans since the terrorist attacks of September 2001 flared up again when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23 year old Nigerian, tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on its final approach to Detroit on Christmas day.
Fortunately, the explosives that Umar Abdulmutallab had hidden in his underwear did not go off. The explosive in question was pentaerythritol (PETN), a colorless compound similar to nitroglycerin that had to be mixed with another chemical to detonate. Umar was quickly subdued, after attempting to mix the PETN, and the 279 passengers and 11 crew members on board the flight were spared being unwitting pawns in what could have been a horrible tragedy.
The real tragedy is the revelation that the government’s security bureaucracy appears to be nothing more than a gang of uncoordinated keystone cops eight years after the 2001 terrorist attacks made the devastating statement that terrorism is for real.
The response to the Abdulmutallab crisis, as is the normal response of bureaucrats to a crisis, was to do something quickly to placate the public, even if the response didn’t make sense.
The airlines were immediately ordered to: Limit international passengers to a single carry-on bag, perform second level pat downs and body searches, disabling the map showing the plane’s progress and location on certain flights, requiring passengers to remain seated for the last hour of the flight, and prohibiting passengers from having blankets or pillows in their laps for the last hour of the flight.
But sanity prevailed after a few days as the airlines and disgruntled passengers complained at the absurdity of the new security decrees. Most of the orders were changed from “mandatory” to “optional”.
The Abdulmutallab incident validates that despite massive security modifications adopted since the infamous Richard “Shoe Bomber” Reid’s unsuccessful attempt, terrorists are adapting their methods and personnel to find new ways to seize or destroy airliners.
The decision to not place Abdulmutallab on the no fly list was made by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) that is organized under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and staffed by representatives of at least 16 agencies and departments specifically to connect the dots on terrorism.
His father had warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria weeks earlier of his son’s extremist connections in Yemen and U.S. intelligence agencies knew at least a month earlier about a possible Nigerian threat but never did connect the dots.
Let’s recap. A man who has made multiple trips to terrorist training camps is outed as a potential threat by his own father and yet our sophisticated high tech security agencies allow him on board a U.S. bound flight without a passport.
President Obama has said there was little doubt that Abdulmutallab should not have been permitted to board the Northwest flight. “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 … a systemic failure has occurred. And I consider that totally unacceptable.”
He has ordered a complete review of this incident and promised a thorough assessment of what went wrong and appropriate changes that need to be made.
Hopefully, this will be an opportunity to look beyond the politics, the high tech fantasy and apply some common sense. Ask the tough questions. Why did security stop using the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS) that cross-checks databases to help flag individuals who could be traveling under false identities or pose terrorism risks? Why are over 150 multi-million dollar whole-body scanners sitting idle in warehouses? Why has the TSA been without an Administrator for nearly a year and what is there about the system that TSA administrators have such short duty cycles? Five Administrators in eight years is a recipe for security disaster.
Perhaps the security system has become a bloated bureaucracy and needs to be streamlined so that coordination and data sharing will be less cumbersome.
Counterterrorism programs exist in the individual budgets of some 40 departments and agencies of the Federal Government. Huge sums of money are being spent on Homeland Security. Over $68 billion dollars is budgeted for distribution to these agencies with over 150,000 employees to ensure America’s security. Are the taxpayers getting value for their money? The Abdulmutallab incident screams out a resounding No.
Why not at least investigate new approaches that are simpler and less costly? For example, sniffer dogs have the notable quality of being able to discern individual scents even when the scents are combined or masked by other odors. Their sense of smell is 2000 times more sensitive than that of humans.
Agencies in Hungary, Korea and the UK are using sniffer dogs specifically chosen for their keen sense of smell and training them to recognize specific odors including explosives. The costs for this training are miniscule compared to the high tech scanning machines.
The “enemy” will remain an invisible presence, unseen except for its devastating effects when an attack occurs. The American people are engaged in what may be an eternal never ending nightmare unless the real problems are addressed and truly effective reforms made. More of the same is no longer acceptable.
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