Sunday, December 27, 2009

Terror Attack on Flight to Detroit - Gulf Between a Quick Response and a Smart Response

December 28, 2009

Somewhere between prohibiting Mr. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from flying and allowing him onto an airplane with explosives stashed in his briefs, there’s a gulf. Rather than bridge this chasm by focusing increased attention on the half million suspicious persons who have been identified, new rules will keep hundreds of millions of non-threatening passengers confined to their seats; books, blankets and computers protectively out of their laps in a response that will do little to address the real terror threat.

As could be predicted, the thwarted attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas day is resulting in a swift and sweeping - if not well-thought out response.

In television interviews, Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano is doing her best to explain what looks like a security lapse. In the past few weeks, Mr. Farouk was outed by his own father who went to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria to explain that his son’s behavior was growing increasingly worrisome. The 23-year old’s name was added to the list of known or suspected terrorists. The list is 500,000 thousand names long and it is this sizable number that seems to have national security folks stumped.

“You have to understand that you need information that is specific and credible if you are going to actually bar someone from air travel,” Ms. Napolitano is quoted as having said on CNN. This is frighteningly reminiscent of the quote by President Bush who, when asked why an August 6, 2001 memo warning of Al Qaeda activity didn’t prompt some kind of national security response said, "There was not a time and place of an attack. It said Osama bin Laden had designs on America. Well, I knew that. What I wanted to know was, is there anything specifically going to take place in America that we needed to react to."

Herein lies the gulf. Without specific information, security professionals certainly can take preventive actions, short of actually barring people from flying, (like say, Cat Stevens)
Each day the Transportation Security Administration is responsible for screening two million air travelers in the United States with little differentiation in the amount of attention given to each traveler.

Can we ask that the when one of the 500,000 on that list actually buy an airline ticket that their passage through the security be given just a tad more attention than the family headed to Disney World?

We should also expect that some methods be used to leverage the information presented to authorities by conscientious folks like Mr. Farouk's dad. Simply adding names of suspicious folks to a list that doesn't get checked isn't even one step up from doing nothing at all.

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