We've been critical of President Obama on numerous occasions, but today, we'll give him credit for describing last week's breach of airline security as a "systemic failure."
While Mr. Obama's comment might be described as stating the obvious, it was refreshing (if overdue) for someone in the administration to admit that we came periously close to catastrophe in the skies over Michigan on Christmas Day. The President's remarks also made a mockery of earlier statements by other officials, particularly Homeland Security director Janet Napolitano, who initially claimed that the "system worked."
Of course, the President's admission creates a few problems for his national security team. Ms. Napolitano's original assertion was remarkably similar to that of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who also made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows. So, claims about the system "working" were clearly based on administration talking points. The White House apparently believed the public would accept that explanation until it became a national joke, forcing other officials--and finally, the President--to offer more realistic assessments. It would be an understatement to say Team Obama has suffered another serious blow to its credibility.
Then, there's the little matter of fixing that gaping security breach. The President, in best bureaucratic fashion, has ordered a "top-level review" of the intelligence failures that caused the near-disaster. A preliminary report is due on his desk on New Year's Eve; a more detailed assessment will follow in 2010. Mr. Obama is also promising accountability in the matter. Presumably, that means that someone will lose his (or her) job because of the screw-up, which nearly resulted in hundreds of fatalities.
Unfortunately, the government's track record in accountability is hardly promising. George Tenet, then-Director of Central Intelligence, kept his job after the debacles that led to 9-11. Ditto for other, senior intelligence officials. There's not much motive for senior bureaucrats to improve their job performance--or that of their subordinates--if everyone keeps their jobs, even after the most glaring intelligence failures.
The guarantee of lifetime employment is also a powerful disincentive to end the turf battles that still beset our intelligence community. Consider the "data trail" that preceded Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempt to bring down Flight 253. Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent Nigerian banker and former government economics minister, personally warned the U.S. Embassy in Lagos last month.
Given the elder Abdulmutallab's stature, it's clear he wasn't passed off to some minor consular official who passed the information along in a routine diplomatic cable. Reading between the lines of this AFP report, it seems clear that the CIA station in Lagos was notified immediately, and it's quite likely that agency personnel were involved in conversations with Abdulmutallab's father.
The CIA also insists that it passed the information to the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), and ensured that Farouk Abdulmutallab's name was entered into a government database. What happened after that is a bit fuzzy; despite the initial report (and later information that highlighted Abdulmutallab's ties to terrorists in Yemen), the "underwear bomber" never made it onto a no-fly list. The failure was compounded by other red flags, also missed by security personnel. He had no checked luggage for his "trip" to Detroit; Adbulmutallab paid for his one-way ticket in cash and was allowed to board the Northwest flight without a passport.
We suspect that the intelligence problems resulted, in part, from differing security classifications for the various databases. The initial report from Abdulmutallab's father was likely classified at the "Secret" level and disseminated via SIPRNET, the government intranet cleared for material up to that level. Meanwhile, reporting that linked the Nigerian to radicals in Yemen might have been based on SIGINT reporting; information of that type is normally held at the "Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI), and disseminated via another network, known as JWICS.
Put another way, it's quite likely that those vital bits of intelligence data were never fused together. That would have given the feds ample reason to bar Abdulmutallab from the flight, although his actions in Amsterdam were more than sufficient for a secondary screening which might have revealed his hidden bomb.
Of course, the intelligence community has an organization that's supposed to "fuse" terrorist-related intel information--the NCTC. But the center is hardly immue from the long-running turf battles between the CIA and the FBI. The two agencies have sparred for years over the counter-terrorism mission and that war has only intensified since 9-11. With billions of budget dollars on the line (and dominance in the counter-terror mission at stake), it's little wonder that the NCTC has become yet another battleground for the FBI and CIA. True, the center actually falls under the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), but with the CIA and FBI providing most of the personnel, conflicts over intel sources, methods and information reliability are inevitable.
And the list of problems doesn't end there. Beyond database issues and turf wars, there's the "mindset" that dominates our battles against terrorists. With the arrival of the Obama Team, the U.S. government has returned to a "law enforcement" approach in dealing with terror groups. Closing Gitmo, shipping Khalid Sheik Mohammed to Manhattan for a civilian trial and even the handling of Farouk Abdulmutallab are evidence of a changing mindset, one that will make it more difficult to prosecute terrorists--and implement solutions to deter future attacks.
You see, there's already a successful system for dealing with the types of threats posed by radicals like Abdulmutallab and his handlers in Yemen. It's the Israeli model, based heavily on advanced passenger screening and profiling. Israel's state airline (El Al) and other carriers have used this approach for years, supplemented with additional layers of physical security at the airport and on individual aircraft. Additionally, Israel is the only nation to take the extra measure of installing missile defense systems on passenger jets, protecting them against yet another potential threat.
But enhanced screening and passenger profiling have become dirty words in the United States. Concerns about civil liberties (and the initial cost for such measures) have prevented profiling on U.S. carriers. And, sadly enough, neither the Bush or Obama Administrations have shown any leadership in these areas. Indeed, it will be an uphill battle to install advanced, "full-body" scanners in American airports.
It's easy enough to spot the holes in our existing security system. But mustering the political courage to implement the required fixes is another matter entirely. We're guessing that enhanced passenger screening and profiling measures won't be implemented until an Al Qaida bomber actually succeeds, and brings down a passenger jet, killing hundreds of innocent civilians.
Then--and only then--will our political leaders summon the courage to do the right thing.