So after billions of dollars in security upgrades and the formation of the Homeland Security Department and the Transportation Security Administration, a man emitting multiple telltale terrorism signs has to be thwarted by passengers on a Christmas Day flight.
And after some rhetorical strangeness, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledges that the system did not work. But is that due to flaws in the system or flaws in the administration of the system?
The feds ought to examine closely the latter possibility before making wholesale changes to air travel security.
A branch of al-Qaida in Yemen is taking credit for the attempted attack by a 23-year-old Nigerian man, boasting that he “penetrated all modern and sophisticated technology and devices and security barriers in the airports of the world.”
The knee-jerk response would be to invest immediately in more technology and to impose more rules on travelers. But that would not be the reaction if TSA had prevented suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding the plane to Detroit after recognizing that his name was on a terrorist watch list, that he bought his expensive ticket with cash and that he didn’t check any luggage.
In November, Abdulmutallab’s father contacted Nigerian officials to warn them that he had become radicalized and was possibly in Yemen. The son’s name was added to a database of possible terrorists, but it was not placed on the no-fly list. Rather than revoke his visa, officials decided to wait until it came up for renewal in June before investigating further. It would appear that the current system could have worked if officials had acted more assertively in the face of danger signs.
The temptation will be to enact sweeping changes to show that the failed attack is being taken seriously. Already some airports are delaying flights to conduct extensive searches of passengers. Some airlines are banning in-flight use of laptop computers and other electronic devices or prohibiting movement in the cabin in the final hour of a flight. Pressure is building for the widespread deployment of expensive technology that could detect the type of explosive powder that Abdulmutallab tried to detonate.
International flights will always be more problematic, because security requires the cooperation of other nations. That’s a diplomatic issue, not a technical one.
Before any of these changes become the norm, the U.S. government needs to decide whether they make sense in light of a threat that should have been thwarted under the current rules.