Additional security measures reported in the aftermath of the Christmas bomber’s failed attempt to down a U.S. airline will amount to naught because they don’t address the central security failure.
Keeping international passengers in their seats for the last hour of a flight will do nothing but create wet seat cushions, as those who need “to go,” including children, are prohibited access to the toilet. Any terrorist who sneaks an explosive on a plane will simply detonate it mid-flight or after takeoff. Limiting passengers to a single carry-on bag will have no effect. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had only one carry-on, and apparently strapped the explosive device to his leg.
Will additional pat-downs work? Not if a terrorist hides the explosive in his underwear.
Measures that might have prevented Abdulmutallab from getting his explosive aboard Flight 253 – air puffers and swabs that detect traces of the explosive he reportedly used, and full-body scanning – take time and money to deploy and won’t be used on all passengers. If security officials are not screening the terrorists, these measures will fail, too.
And that’s the central issue. The security system failed to screen out the terrorist.
“We will not rest until we find all who were involved and hold them accountable,” President Obama said in his brief press conference from his vacation in Hawaii on Monday. “This was a serious reminder of the dangers that we face.”
That’s important, but it misses the point. The White House has announced a review of all security procedures. But based on what we already know, it is obvious that the United States effectively ignores, from an operational standpoint, the vast majority of intelligence it receives regarding terror suspects.
According to the administration, the government receives 18,000 tips a day. When Abdullmutallab’s father reported him to the U.S. embassy as a potential Muslim terrorist, it was treated as just another bit of “noise” in the system. It was just one of 18,000 bits received that day, the administration has said. And that is the problem.
Before 9/11, the government collected enough information on the plot to stop it, had anyone put the pieces together. “Connecting the dots” became a buzz phrase in the next year. We would not rest until we had the ability to do that. But in 2009 we still don’t, in part because we don’t have enough resources devoted to doing so.
A dedicated group of suicide bombers can beat even the beefed up security measures now being slowly put into place. For all of his flaws, President Bush understood that when dealing with terrorists, the best defense is a good offense. We shouldn’t be waiting until a terrorist gets to the airport. We should be going after them aggressively.
That means putting more resources into intelligence gathering and “connecting the dots” so we find them before they find us. Unfortunately, this president doesn’t seem interested in taking the war to the terrorists. He seems dedicated to the proposition that this is not a war at all, but a diplomatic problem first, a criminal justice problem second. That approach will work just as well as it did before 9/11.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.