At the end of the movie “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” after swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones has retrieved the fabled Ark of the Covenant from the evil Nazis, the treasure, with its devastating, face-melting powers, is hammered into an innocuous crate, then hauled to the bowels of a massive U.S. government warehouse packed with umpteen identical containers.
That scene came to mind when I read that Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine has, in several reports, pointed out flaws in the terrorist watch-list system not unlike some that contributed to giving Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab the opportunity to set his pants on fire aboard a Christmas Day flight to Detroit.
That doesn’t mean Fine’s constructive criticisms have been filed into obscurity. In fact, each report comes with an FBI response and details about adjustments that have been made.
But it’s clear that problems persist despite efforts to eliminate them. And it seems that a near miss is required to kick-start the sense of urgency that already should have been operating.
That’s not so comforting to public confidence.
Fine told the House Homeland Security Committee in 2007 that the Terrorist Screening Center’s consolidated database didn’t include some names it should, included names that should have been deleted, and had inaccurate or inconsistent information. Those weaknesses could make it harder for Border Patrol officers, visa reviewers and law enforcement officials to track or handle suspected terrorists.
“Even a single omission or a terrorist identity or an inaccuracy in the identifying information contained in a watch-list record can have enormous consequences,” Fine said in written testimony that was all too prophetic.
A May report from Fine’s office said the FBI wasn’t sending some names to the watch list that it should have been and was taking too long to process others. Meanwhile, dozens of people remained listed for years unnecessarily. The inspector general said that “12 of the terrorism subjects we reviewed who either were not watch-listed or were watch-listed in an untimely manner may have traveled into or out of the United States during the time period they were not watch-listed.” Details aren’t included, so it’s hard to assess the potential threat in those cases the IG reviewed.
On the other hand, the danger from Abdulmutallab not being quickly listed speaks for itself.
Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama said the intelligence community had plenty of red flags that, had they been connected, could have stopped the 23-year-old Nigerian from boarding the flight from Amsterdam. There was information that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was working with a Nigerian to strike the United States. Abdulmutallab’s father had warned the U.S. Embassy that his missing son was increasingly radical and might have gone to Yemen. Abdulmutallab had been denied a new visa by Britain, paid $2,831 cash for his ticket from Lagos to Detroit and had taken only a small carry-on bag for his long international flight.
But no one immediately checked into his U.S. visa. He wasn’t put on a no-fly list. The information wasn’t put together in a way that made anyone adequately suspicious.
“I will accept that intelligence, by its nature, is imperfect, but it is increasingly clear that intelligence was not fully analyzed or fully leveraged,” Obama said.
“The margin for error is slim, and the consequences of failure can be catastrophic,” he said.
While the government improves its security mechanisms, the traveling public will have to get used to more intrusions. But Thomas H. Kean and John Farmer Jr., the 9/11 Commission co-chairman and senior counsel, respectively, wrote Wednesday in the New York Times that more fundamental changes are needed to focus the intelligence agencies more on their common mission than on turf battles over funding and power.
“The question that Congress should investigate, and the administration should ask itself, is whether the system we have in place has reduced the likelihood of human error to an acceptable, if not irreducible, margin,” they wrote.
“The attempted Christmas bombing, thwarted by brave passengers and not by our intelligence community, illustrates how far we still have to go.”
The people on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 benefited from the dumb luck that a would-be bomber was inept.
That’s no way to run a national security system.