Flaws in airport security

Flaws in airport security

December 31st, 2009 in Opinion Times

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.