The failure of U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to flag Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he took his seat on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit has prompted several federal reviews to ascertain what went wrong with the post-9/11 procedures specifically designed to spot potential terrorists before they attack. Meanwhile, there is renewed focus on airport security, which critics for years have bemoaned as both cumbersome and incapable of catching crafty and adaptive adversaries.
In Washington, the GOP leapt to criticize the Obama administration, hoping to make him and his party look weak on national security issues. Indiana Rep. Dan Burton called for Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, who initially appeared to say that the screening system worked, to resign. The National Republican Senatorial Committee already has cited the Christmas incident in a fundraising letter. Dick Cheney said the country was less safe with Obama at the helm.
The Democrats counterpunched, noting that the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees airport security, lacks a permanent director because of a hold placed on the nomination by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint over unionization concerns. They also say that congressional Republicans oppose funding for expanded airport security.
In retrospect, Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old from Nigeria who allegedly has spent time with al Qaeda in Yemen, probably shouldn't have been able to obtain a visa to enter the United States, much less board a plane headed to the States. Britain had, after all, denied him entry to the country earlier in the year. But at 5:37 a.m. on Christmas Day, Abdulmutallab passed routinely through security screening, including a metal detector, in Amsterdam's airport for the last leg of his fateful journey. He took his seat in Row 19 for the 9 a.m. departure, giving no hint to the fellow passengers that allegedly secreted inside his underwear were enough homemade explosives to kill everyone on board.
Lawmakers and the White House both are most interested in the apparently numerous missed warning signs and bits of intelligence that went uncorrelated. A senior U.S. counterterrorism official says that there was "some chatter" from al Qaeda-linked groups in Yemen prior to the failed bombing plot but that the information was not specific enough to prompt action. Abdulmutallab's father was so concerned by his son's interest in radical Islam that he reported it to U.S. Embassy and CIA officials in Abuja, Nigeria, in November. That prompted the State Department to include Abdulmutallab's name in a report to the National Counterterrorism Center, which oversees some of the nation's terrorist watch lists. But in the end, Abdulmutallab was apparently not placed on the list of the most high-risk terrorists, which would have prevented him from flying, but on a less-sensitive list of people with reported extremist connections. But despite these bits of data, which seem all the more damning now, nothing pegged Abdulmutallab with certainty as a terrorist.
President Obama called these unconnected dots evidence of "systemic failure" and "totally unacceptable." "Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence, and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged," Obama said this week in a scathing assessment of the counterterrorism response.
A preliminary White House investigation of the incident has been completed, while a broader review is underway of the nation's antiterrorism measures, including airport screening and the watch lists. The way the watch lists are organized, in particular, has come under scrutiny in numerous reviews by the Government Accountability Office.
The fact that Abdulmutallab had little trouble passing through security screening gives new credence to numerous critics of airport security procedures, who have long claimed that there are flaws dangerously open to exploitation. For instance, all airplane passengers are forced to remove their shoes and have them scanned by an X-ray machine. That measure was introduced after "shoe bomber" Richard Reid tried to blow up a Miami-bound flight in 2001. Yet critics point out that X-ray machines cannot detect the types of explosives that Reid used and that Abdulmutallab is accused of using.
In 2006, after a group of men in England were arrested and charged with planning to use liquid explosives to down a plane, travelers were banned from bringing all but the smallest amounts of liquids on board in their carry-on luggage. But metal detectors don't spot liquids.