published Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Flaws in airport security

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, apparently meant to kill his fellow passengers and strike a harsh psychic blow to the United States. The attempt, thwarted by an alert passenger, underscores potentially fatal flaws in the way the United States and other nations screen airline passengers and share intelligence, internally and externally, about suspected terrorists. Washington, and our allies, must act decisively to remedy these flaws.

Accumulating information on the failed attack affirms significant intelligence flaws as well as problems with routine airport security screening. These flaws justify President Obama’s description of them Tuesday as a “catastrophic breach” and evidence of a “systemic failure” in the nation’s security processes.

Path to “systemic failure”

The known facts certainly seem to support that harsh assessment. Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father, one of Nigeria’s richest bankers, went to the American Embassy in Nigeria on Nov. 19 to express his concern that his son — then a student in London — was becoming “radicalized,” and to ask for help. His warning was taken seriously enough that the CIA representatives he spoke with had him return to the embassy the next day to meet with representatives of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the State Department, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

Strangely, the State Department concluded after these meetings that it did not need to revoke Mr. Abdulmutallab’s visa to visit the United States.

It gets worse.

Lost in the shuffle

The embassy, as required, did forward the warning to the National Counterterrorism Center. But apparently the center merely added his name to the data base of 550,000 potential terrorists — but not to its list of 14,000 people who are to be searched more thoroughly at airports.

It is not yet known whether the center knew that Mr. Abdulmutallab was the student president of the Islamic Society at London’s University College — a fact his father may have reported to the American Embassy in Nigeria, and that Britain’s internal intelligence service should have known, but apparently didn’t. Regardless, his name didn’t make it on the narrower “no-fly” list of 4,000.

Overlooked in airport

It seems obvious, though admittedly in hindsight, that the graphic warning given the embassy and the range of federal authorities by the defendant’s father was grievously mishandled. So, too, was the security screening of the defendant when he boarded a flight in Nigeria en route to the United States via a plane transfer in Amsterdam.

It surely is hard for an airport’s passenger-screening agents to detect 80 grams, or less than 3 ounces, of wet powder carried by a passenger in a paper or plastic envelop somewhere on their person. Walk-through metal detectors, wands and brief pat-downs aren’t likely to find such hidden contraband in the typical production-line screening that clears most passengers.

But the PETN explosive powder in that amount allegedly smuggled onto the airliner by Mr. Abdulmutallab, taped to his leg, is the same type of explosive that Richard Reid, known as the shoe-bomber, tried to detonate on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami on Dec. 22, 2001.

It’s been nine years since then. And in the interim, the nation’s Transportation Security Administration, Congress under both parties, and President Bush and now President Obama, have not yet found an adequate way to share intelligence information on suspected terrorists either internally or externally, nor have they implemented a better security system to detect plastic weapons, explosives, and lethal chemicals.

There has been, of course, a necessary period of time to test screening methods and develop needed technologies. There also is a logical tradeoff in what the multitudes of airline passengers will tolerate in security procedures, versus the TSA’s need to feel confident that its screening processes are reasonably effective and adequate.

Body scanners necessary

Most passengers — as well as TSA agents and others involved in airport security — probably are aware that small amounts of some liquid, plastic and chemical products capable of downing an airliner or providing a weapon may be easily hidden from routine screening and X-ray devices. Yet there remains understandable resistance among ordinary citizens to the use of graphic body imaging — about 10 types are being studied — that would leave passengers in security-check lines feeling naked or violated when screened.

This predicament begs a resolution. Body scanners are now available that would have detected the explosive powder which reportedly was found fixed to Mr. Abdulmutallab’s leg. The government of the Netherlands, where Mr. Abdulmutallab transferred to an airplane to Detroit, announced Wednesday that it would install body scanners at its airports.

The Obama administration must finally chart a path toward adoption of such a system. It makes no sense to impose arbitrary and seemingly senseless rules — for example, not leaving your seat for an hour before landing — when the administration has not moved aggressively on foolproof scanning technologies to reduce the risk of terrorist acts.

Failed states still a threat

Lastly, there remains the issue of coping with a widening circle of failed states which nurture terrorists, which now include Chad and Yemen. Mr. Abdulmutallab has told officials that he was instructed in Yemen by al-Qaida-related militants in techniques with explosives like PETN. And Yemen certainly is known as a refuge for Qaida-affiliated terrorists and is now approaching the slope to failed-state status.

Yet Washington has done everything asked of it by Yemen, including provision of arms, materiel and training for its security forces. Washington can neither ban failed states, nor invade or guide them all. But it must give close attention to intelligence and aid to help contain terrorism. As the most recent case affirms, their can yet be no sense of complacency.

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jimmycam said...

I find your comments interesting in that you choose to not identify the bombing as a well planned but, thankfully, poorly executed terrorism plot.

Also, I am not sure what a 'failed state' is. (Maybe Michigan or California) I do know that Yemenit is a hotbed of Al Kadi terrorists and that our government has sent Guantanimo prisioners back to Yemen.

If government security worked Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab would never have had the opportunity to get to a body scanner in Amsterdam.

A credit card transaction can be approved or denied in less than five seconds anywhere in the world. It seems that a terrorist, reported to the American Embassy in Nigeria, should make a no-no list in a month.

Is this a great country or what?

December 31, 2009 at 9:30 a.m.
nucanuck said...

Increasing security is at best an iterim palliative,not a cure,for a problem with substantial growth potential.

If the root causes of Islamic violence are left unchecked we may find ourselves having to protect every bus,every train,every shopping center,every market in America.

We have let anger and religious intolerance cloud our thinking for too long,and to our own detriment.

December 31, 2009 at 12:57 p.m.
Sailorman said...

"If the root causes of Islamic violence"

And those would be what?

December 31, 2009 at 1:10 p.m.
nucanuck said...

Your a smart boy Sailorman,I think you know or can figure it out.

December 31, 2009 at 1:30 p.m.
Sailorman said...

I'm sure I can NC but since you brought it up how about defining it.

December 31, 2009 at 1:44 p.m.

We're not the angry, intolerant ones in this case (and many others), the Terrorists and their supporters like Iran, Sudan, Yemen, are. They have proven themselves with statements such as "wiping all the Jews off the face of the earth', raping, murdering and impoverishing their own (Christian and Muslim) peoples and using our dollars to buy and create weapons to use against us. I'd call that religious (Islamic) intolerance, ethnocentrism and racism of the most vile sort.

When the Bureaucrats in Liberal-Left countries like ours and Europe smarten up, get tough and decide to do their jobs properly, which I doubt they will, then and only then will our countries and peoples have some modicum of security. Bureaucrats in the system, are people who have their daily agenda and an over-arching agenda dictated to them by their Gov't or Organization. This is not a "systemic" problem, it is, for those of us accustomed to dealing with huge, ineffective bureaucracies, a people problem. People in the here and now who are in charge supposedly. If Liberals would act instead of self-flagellating for their sins and realize evil people like Terrorists, lie, cheat and steal to accomplish their goals, then we would have a Gov't that secures it's citizens.

Don't believe it? Okay sit back like your bureaucrats do and watch the increased carnage. They're not stupid. We are.

December 31, 2009 at 1:59 p.m.
nucanuck said...


When you are ready for a more open understanding of Islamo-Christian friction,you will seek it out on your own and absorb it over time. Anything I could say in a paragraph or two would only serve as attack fodder for your preconcieved beliefs.

December 31, 2009 at 2:03 p.m.
nucanuck said...

canary says we need to "smarten up and get tough." Our smartest toughest Generals have been trying to catch/kill an elusive enemy for nine years at an unbearable cost in national morale, money and lives.

canary may be at least half right,we have to smarten up. War on an abstract (ie terrorism) can only have an abstract result. When you try to kill flies with a sledge hammer,all you are likely to do is break up the place. There are reasons much of the Muslim intelligencia hate the West and until we wrestle with that,we are left with growing security needs.

December 31, 2009 at 2:59 p.m.
rolando said...

Translation: Nucanuck doesn't have the slightest idea what the "root causes of Islamic violence" are. It just sounded cool to him when DailyKos said it.

And yeah, I am enough of a boor to say it.

December 31, 2009 at 4:58 p.m.
nucanuck said...

A New Year's Eve twofer for rolando,both a boor and wrong.

December 31, 2009 at 5:04 p.m.
Sailorman said...

Very much the response I expected. Sad really. NC I suggest you read your response and ponder how it reflects your own thinking.

Happy New Year

January 1, 2010 at 10:38 a.m.
nucanuck said...


Off topic,but maybe a New Year's smile for you. My daughter gave me a T-shirt emblazened with:


The first time I wore it,one of my tennis buddies said,"that's perfect".

January 1, 2010 at 3:51 p.m.
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