After connecting the dots on terror, we need to act
President Obama has ordered intelligence reports to be distributed more rapidly and more widely because the events around Northwest Flight 253 show that "this was a failure to connect and share the intelligence we already had." Better technology at security checkpoints is a needed and obvious next step after a man got on a Detroit-bound flight with a bomb. Identifying and fixing the failure points are rightly at the top of America's agenda. We run the danger, however, of letting those important discussions distract us from seeing the far simpler improvements that are available.
The major remaining vulnerability in passenger screening is clearly our ability to detect objects carried on the body. Whole-body imagers are the best option for closing that gap. This is well known, as was the methodology al-Qaeda employed with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Some raise privacy objections to these machines, which are not equipped to store images. The passengers being screened are not personally visible or known to the screeners. Last January the Transportation Security Administration had a plan to balance privacy protections and achieve widespread deployment of whole-body imagers. Any new Congress and administration have a great deal to address, but this issue should be at the top of the list. They should discuss, decide and deploy.
A summary report the White House released Thursday said that "intentional redundancy" in capabilities of the CIA and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) "should have added an additional layer of protection in uncovering a plot like the failed attack on December 25." As we learn more about the failures at the CIA and NCTC in this case, we must remember that there are two reformers at the helm of those organizations, Leon Panetta and Mike Leiter, and that lasting change takes time, particularly in government.
We have good people in our system and we need to keep them. The news this week of a third uninvited guest at the White House state dinner once again brought criticism of the Secret Service. The easy way to make such an issue go away, some argued, is to sacrifice someone -- in this case, agency director Mark Sullivan. Were that to happen, the very person who is equipped and motivated to dig deep and fix the problem, would be taken out. Sullivan put together the most innovative and effective security system for the most complex election and inauguration in our country's history. He is also a progressive leader, bringing diversity and new energy to the Secret Service's vital mission.
We need to identify the Sullivans, Panettas and Leiters, lock them into long-term commitments and give them unflinching support as they battle on our behalf. The FBI sets a good example on this score. It is not immune to systemic failure, and Director Bob Mueller has used every minute of his tenure to drive needed culture and technological change. He probably needs 10 more years. So, we must fight the instinct to seize upon a scapegoat.
On watch lists, the path is clear. The mechanics of the system already work well: Based on new intelligence, a person can be added, and thus banned from flying, within minutes. It would not be hard to broaden the definitions of the two watch-list designations that affect aviation security ("no-fly" and "selectee"). But two critical additional components must not be overlooked: The TSA's nascent Secure Flight program, which will take limited passenger data from the airlines, will address most concerns about innocent passengers being wrongly listed because their names are similar to those of suspects. Secure Flight's timetable needs to be accelerated before the watch lists are broadened, or the Obama administration will be caught in the same credibility-destroying firestorm over wrong names that plagued the TSA years ago.
We must also make the watch lists multinational. The pieces are in place; we just need to make the deal with our allies in counterterrorism. This was done on a regional basis in the Caribbean during the Cricket World Cup in 2007. Our current blunt instrument, giving extra screening for those with certain passports, is not useful in the long term. Al-Qaeda has hundreds of Western operatives with clean records and passports, and after this initial emergency period, we should be more precise with extra-screening criteria.
In my experience, the counterterrorism community does a brilliant job of getting and sharing the dots. The challenge is knowing when to act on them. As threat information comes in, those with operational responsibility consider actions to disrupt a potential threat. All too often, the qualifiers in the reporting -- words such as "non-credible," "not imminent," "non-viable" -- give a false sense that it is too soon to act. In those cases, prudent analytical caution can stay the hand of a preemptive move until the only options are reactive.
I am often asked why we can't have an aviation security system more like Israel's. We can and we should. But the key ingredient of Israeli security is not that their technology or staffers are better -- they are not. It's not profiling or having just one international airport. It is willpower. Israelis as a nation have coalesced around the fact that they are in a deadly generational conflict that extends to their everyday activities, such as traveling. Attacks and casualties are unavoidable, yet unflinching determination and take-the-offensive mentalities are hallmarks of Israel's reaction. Because of this fundamental national consensus, when there are security breaches Israel does not wander down self-destructive paths, more focused on sound bites than results.
The United States must come together and recognize that this battlefield is not someplace far away, battles fought by somebody else. We are all involved and at risk.
The writer was head of the Transportation Security Administration from July 2005 to January 2009.