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What to make of the failed terrorist attack

Tuesday, December 29, 2009; A15

Homeland security, intelligence and legal experts share their reactions.

FRANCES FRAGOS TOWNSEND

Assistant to President George W. Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism; chair of the Homeland Security Council from May 2004 to January 2008; partner at law firm Baker Botts

The president has ordered two reviews since the attack attempted against Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day. While such reviews are necessary to understand why a multibillion-dollar aviation security system failed to prevent Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from boarding a U.S.-bound flight with explosives, the American people rightly expect more.

This plot appears to trace back to Yemen, a country that is not a new counterterrorism problem. Since the October 2000 attack against the USS Cole, in which 17 U.S. sailors were killed, two administrations have pushed Yemen to confront al-Qaeda without sufficient success. It was from Yemen that terrorists brought the guns used to attack our consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2004; our embassy in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, has been attacked at least four times since 2000. Al-Qaeda recently launched from Yemen an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the head of Saudi Arabia's counterterror police.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have poured money and counterterrorism resources -- military, intelligence and law enforcement -- into Yemen. But after nearly a decade the American people are understandably fed up. The Obama administration needs to take a clear, tough line with Yemen: Take care of the terrorism problem within your borders so you are no longer a threat to the United States and our allies in the region, or allow the international community to come in and clean it up for you. The time for polite diplomacy is long past.

JEFFREY H. SMITH

Former general counsel of the CIA; partner at Arnold & Porter

More than eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, we are still not able to connect the dots effectively. Stopping dedicated suicide bombers is a difficult task, and it is reassuring that the administration's surprisingly tepid initial reaction has been replaced with a strong call for action.

Here are a few questions that administration officials, Congress, the airlines and our allies, all of which must be involved in making the necessary fixes, needs to address:

-- When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's father told U.S. officials that his son had been radicalized and gone to Yemen, did we alert the Yemenis, the British and other relevant countries? Why didn't we revoke or suspend his visa?

-- Did anyone notice that Abdulmutallab paid cash for his plane ticket, in an out-of-the-way location, and was traveling without checked luggage? If not, why not? Did he request a seat that near the plane's fuel tank?

-- What value is the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) list with its 550,000 names? How is it used? Do we share all key information with like-minded governments? If Abdulmutallab were put on the TIDE list, should the facts that he paid cash for a ticket and didn't check luggage automatically move him to the no-fly list or at least a list requiring far more scrutiny (as Israel's El Al does)?

-- The Markle Foundation Task Force on National Security in the Information Age, on which I serve, has been pressing for more and better information-sharing for years. Progress has been made, but the failure to identify Abdulmutallab as a threat before the flight means much more must be done. Technology can identify suspicious patterns. Policy changes are needed to support additional information-sharing. Airport security checkpoints also need better equipment to detect explosives. What can be done to make these a higher priority?

We also must adopt a more sophisticated passenger- screening process that focuses on people who are more likely to be terrorists (some may call this profiling, but given the risks it is necessary), and we must foster even closer coordination with like-minded governments. Finally, we must continue to attack the problem at the root, in Yemen and elsewhere, not only with force but also with political, economic and social programs.

CLARK KENT ERVIN

Inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2004; head of the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Program

Given the 24-7 media focus since the attempted attack, security gaps regarding terror watch lists and passenger screening are likely to be closed. Less noticed, and less likely to be addressed, are vulnerabilities in our visa system.

The would-be bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, held a Nigerian passport, which meant he was subjected to the post-Sept. 11 visa process. Had his passport been from Britain, France or another of the 35 countries whose passport holders can travel freely to the United States, Abdulmutallab would not have been interviewed by a U.S. consular officer; had his name checked against various terrorist or criminal databases; or been photographed and fingerprinted so that on his arrival U.S. customs officials could determine whether he is the person to whom the visa was issued.

While not foolproof, these security measures make it harder for terrorists to evade law enforcement, which is why terrorists prize passports from visa-waiver countries ("shoe bomber" Richard Reid held a British passport; Zacarias Moussaoui held a French passport), and why the Obama administration should put a halt to the Bush administration's penchant for expanding the program to countries as a reward for support of our foreign policy. Once granted, it's nearly impossible to revoke a country's visa-waiver status. Revoking waivers would cause a diplomatic uproar just as we are working overtime to win back international support, not to mention the cost and disruption of requiring millions of additional applicants to go through the already underfinanced and overworked visa system. At the least, though, we should stop extending the waiver to additional countries. And the Department of Homeland Security should greatly expand its use of visa-security officers to ensure that the paramount focus is on security, not diplomacy. After Sept. 11, the State Department fought hard to retain the power to issue visas, but Homeland Security visa officers were supposed to be dispatched to missions around the world as an additional security measure. They remain underutilized, primarily due to diplomats' turf consciousness and the agency's underappreciation of their potential strategic value.

The visa system should be amended to revoke automatically the visa of anyone later included on a terror watch list, a serious omission in this case, and Homeland Security should add an exit feature to the automated U.S. VISIT entry system so we know whether people are leaving this country when their visas expire. If we learn that someone who has entered this country has terrorist ties, it would be helpful to have some indication of whether he or she is still here.

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