The Congratulations and Blame Game
Shortly after Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad was arrested, senior federal officials began their usual game of congratulations and blame. While praising various agencies and their personnel for a job well done, they also tried to shift the blame for security lapses that almost allowed the would-be bomber to get away.
We refer to the fact that Mr. Shahzad managed to purchase a one-way ticket to Dubai at New York's JFK Airport; pass unmolested through Transportation Security Administration check points and board the flight. And contrary to some media accounts, federal agents did not board the jet (and take Shahzad into custody) before it pushed back from the gate.
A transcript of the radio conversation between pilots and the control tower suggests that Shahzad's plane, Emirates Flight 202, had been passed from ground control to the tower as it neared the end of the taxiway and prepared for takeoff (H/T: Flying With Fish)
Male voice: "202, looks like you're going to be number one, monitor tower on 123 point end at this time."
Plane: "123 niner Emirates 202, goodnight"
Female voice: "I'm with 202 heavy Kennedy (inaudible) runway 22 right position. Actually, I have a message for you to go back to the gate immediately. So make the left turn when able."
Plane: "22 202 turning ..."
Female voice: "I am with 202 make the left turn on to echo left alpha back to the ramp. I don't know exactly why, but you can call your company for the reason."
Plane: "Will do that. Left onto echo and then on to alpha and back to the gate via gulf?"
Female voice: "Yes, whatever is convenient."
Plane: "Emirates 202."
Male voice: "Ground Emirates 202 heavy."
Female voice: "Emirates 202 heavy, go ahead."
Plane: "Yes ma'am we're trying to figure out what's going on here right now. But as far as we know I'd like to request you to just keep the flight plan open for now."
Female voice: "Emirates 202 heavy, no problem. The flight plan's good for another two hours."
As anyone who's every flown knows, "number one" (in this context) means the aircraft is next in line for departure. In fact, the Boeing 777 was already on Kennedy's Runway 22R and was just moments away from starting its takeoff roll. Flying With Fish describes just how close Shahzad came to making his getaway:
Had law enforcement waited 30 seconds the aircraft would have been airborne, 90 seconds it would have been banking a hard left and on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean over The Rockaways, in less than 5 minutes the aircraft would in the airspace over international territorial waters … and then catching Shahzad would require action by either the airline to turn the aircraft around, or international diplomacy to either divert the aircraft or have Shahzad apprehended in Dubai … which is problematic as the United Arab Emirates has no extradition treaty with the United States.
And that's why the blame game has begun--in earnest. During today's media briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs blamed the airline, suggesting that Emirates either didn't see--or ignored--updated information that placed Shahzad on the federal no-fly list.
But CBS News paints a much different picture of the situation. According to aviation correspondent Bob Orr, the airline tipped the feds after the suspect made a phone reservation for the Dubai flight, apparently while driving to JFK Airport. It's unclear if Emirates officials had connected Shahzad to the no-fly list, but there were enough red flags (last-minute reservation; one-way ticket, paid in cash) to alert U.S. authorities and steer the hunt towards the airport.
There's also the question of why the suspect was arrested after the plane pushed back from the gate and not at a security checkpoint, or another location inside the terminal. If the feds were "all over" the situation (as Attorney General Eric Holder insists), then Shahzad could have been easily detained as he passed through security, or waited for his flight in the gate area. Instead, air traffic controllers had to order the jet back to the terminal, just moments before its scheduled departure.
Attempting to explain Shahzad's near-escape, some liberal blogs have suggested that the bombing suspect was allowed to board the aircraft so the feds could gather additional intelligence. But that explanation simply doesn't hold water; whenever possible, law enforcement officials want to arrest suspects before they get on a plane, to avoid putting other passengers and the flight crew at risk.
Indeed, the fact that Shahzad wasn't detained at a security checkpoint or in the terminal indicates federal, state and local authorities did a poor job disseminating information to their own personnel. If TSA screeners and Port Authority transit officers were unaware of Shahazad, it's quite reasonable that Emirates was working from an outdated database.
To be sure, there is room for improvement in the current no-fly list and how that data is shared with the air carriers. Currently, law enforcement officials don't receive passenger manifests until 30 minutes before a flight departs. But in this case, the feds knew who the suspect was and they had some knowledge of his travel plans in advance. The call from Emirates came well before Shahzad arrived at JFK, yet he still managed to pass through security and board that Dubai-bound flight.
There are other, disturbing questions about the suspect as well. Shahzad reportedly received secondary screening when he returned from Pakistan earlier this year, after a five-month visit. Why was he singled out for the additional measures? During a press conference on Tuesday, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano suggested that officials had information on Shahzad that raised their suspicions. If that was the case, then why wasn't he placed on a no-fly list at that time, or identified as a target for surveillance by the FBI?
Additionally, there are questions about the money trail. Shahzad quit his last full-time job in the summer of 2009, before traveling home to Pakistan. His home in Connecticut was in foreclosure. Yet, he had enough cash to support himself for several months and purchase the Pathfinder for the bombing attempt, with enough left over for a last-minute, expensive flight to Dubai. The source of Shahzad's money--and how it was funneled to him--should prove illuminating.
Finally, there's the matter of his U.S. citizenship. Mr. Shahzad was naturalized last summer, just before he retured to Pakistan. At the time he became an American citizen, the suspect had been in the country for 10 years, long enough to earn undergradute and graduate degrees at the University of Bridgeport, work as a financial analyst at a Connecticut securities firm and buy a home. Nothing unusual or illegal about that.
But while Shahzad was on the road to citizenship, thousands of other emigres were denied the same opportunity. That raises questions about the suspect's family connections and what role--if any--they played in aiding his quest for naturalization. Shahzad's father (as we subsequently learned) is a former vice chief of staff of the Pakistan's air force. In that capacity, he met frequently with senior U.S. diplomats and military officials. Did the elder Shahzad use his American connections to get his son into our country and on the path to citizenship? We may soon learn the answer to that question as well.