Aftermath of Flight 253: A Familiar Pattern

In the days after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to kill himself and bring down Northwest Flight 253, the story followed a familiar pattern.

First, there were the daily revelations of what various intelligence and other government agencies didn’t do with what they had already known about Abdulmutallab’s behavior and associations: from his father’s effort to alert US officials about his son’s radicalization, to Abdulmutallab’s cash purchase of a round trip ticket and his checking in for the flight without luggage –” both “red flags” that should have warranted secondary airport screening.

As the full picture emerged, it became clear that some of the same problems that existed prior to 9/11 still plagued the many diverse components of the U.S.’s intelligence and law enforcement apparatus. In particular, they were not communicating with one another or sharing critical information with each other. For example, the concerns shared by Abdullmutallab’s father with U.S. Embassy staff and the CIA, and the fact that the young man had gone to study in Yemen, were recorded, resulting in Abdumutallab being placed on the large National Counterterrorism Center’s TIDE master list of persons of interest, but not on a “terrorism watch list”. Also, the information did not get passed to the Yemen government or the FBI, nor did it impact his U.S. visa.

It could be argued that this after-the-fact “connecting of the dots” is unfair, since it can be compared to doing a crossword puzzle after looking at the answers, but this matter of “dot connecting” was supposed to have been resolved by provisions of the Patriot Act that encouraged inter-agency intelligence sharing, and by the creation of the Directorate of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center that were designed to serve as the “nerve centers” and intelligence clearinghouses facilitating such inter-agency cooperation. The fact that some of the same problems that haunted the intelligence community pre-9/11 still exist today, eight years after the deadly attacks, caused exasperation among those who had been involved in the reform effort and led a clearly troubled President Obama to declare that there would be accountability for those who had failed.

If the pattern of revelation and recrimination was familiar, so too were the efforts of some to politicize the almost tragic affair. There were calls for Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to resign or be fired, and the charge that this entire episode demonstrates the Obama Administration’s weakness in dealing with matters of national security. Former Vice President Cheney used the incident to ratchet up his personal attacks against Obama, while GOP Congressional leaders saw an opportunity to attack the President’s plan to close Guantanamo.

Fair or unfair, or just “plain politics” there can be no question about the seriousness of what almost occurred on Flight 253. Had Abdulmutallab succeeded in his evil mission, a deadly blow would have been delivered to the nation and a serious challenge to the Obama Presidency. The incident, therefore, must be and will be taken seriously.

Overlapping hearings will be held by Congressional committees, a full scale administrative review will be conducted looking into what happened and what didn’t happen in this particular incident, with the President’s call for accountability possibly resulting in changes in personnel.

In the meantime, while all this is sorted out, travelers will once again endure time consuming checks. We now know that airport security remains vulnerable and that new threats cannot be adequately combated by procedures currently in use. We also know that post-9/11 reforms have not been fully implemented and that there are weaknesses in our “list” making and the use made of these lists.

Here, too, the discussion will follow a familiar pattern. There have already been calls for more extensive use of “profiling”, an overly broad expansion of the “no-fly” lists and a lowering of the threshold of what constitutes sufficient grounds to be placed on the terrorism “watch list”, and more extensive use of more sophisticated scanning equipment that some have complained are highly intrusive, in that they create a virtual “strip search” image of passengers. Some of the proposals are but a worn out rehashing of the kind of alarmist and bigoted ideas that surfaced after 9/11. They were shot down then, and more thoughtful Congressional leaders have shot them down again in recent days.

But there will, no doubt, be a healthy and needed debate on all these efforts, with civil libertarians, lawmakers and law enforcement professionals seeking the right balance in the remedies needed to correct the weaknesses in our security. This debate, which has already begun, will take us well into the New Year. It will be important and worth following closely, since its consequences will shape our lives for years to come.