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Eight years after 9/11, another cascade of security failures

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The more I think about the Christmas all-but-bombing, the angrier I get. At the multiple failures that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to get on the plane with explosives sewn in his underwear. And at the Obama administration's initial, everything's-fine-everybody-move-right-along reaction.

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I understand: When it comes to a terrorist attack, we live in an age of not if but when. What seems obvious in retrospect is rarely evident at the time; hindsight needs no Lasik. For every Abdulmutallab who slips through the inevitable cracks, many more are foiled. Or so we hope.

And so we have learned, because we must, to live with a new layer of risk. Like climbers adjusting to a higher altitude, we have grown so accustomed to the changed circumstances that we forget about the thinner air, the omnipresent danger. Until moments like the episode on Flight 253 yank us back to the new reality -- and, worse, to the realization that, eight long and expensive years later, not nearly enough has changed.

"Information was not shared. . . . Analysis was not pooled. . . . Often the handoffs of information were lost across the divide separating the foreign and domestic agencies of the government."

"Improved use of 'no-fly' and 'automatic selectee' lists should not be delayed. . . . This screening function should be performed by the TSA [Transportation Security Administration], and it should utilize the larger set of watchlists maintained by the federal government."

"The TSA . . . must give priority attention to improving the ability of screening checkpoints to detect explosives on passengers."

A trenchant analysis of the Christmas attack? No, quotes from the report of the 9/11 Commission.

As with the numerous missed opportunities to stop the 9/11 hijackers, the Abdulmutallab story that has emerged so far is an enraging litany of how-can-it-be's.

How can it be that his visa was not revoked after his own father went to U.S. authorities to report concerns about his son's radicalization? "After his father contacted the embassy recently, we coded his visa file so that, had he attempted to renew his visa months from now, it would have triggered an in-depth review of his application," one U.S. official told CNN. How reassuring.

How can it be that, after the father's alert, the most that seems to have been done was to place Abdulmutallab's name in a database so sprawling as to be nearly useless? There was, one administration official explained, "insufficient derogatory information" to bump Abdulmutallab to a higher status of watch list. Excuse me, but how much more derogatory can you get?

How can it be that British authorities denied Abdulmutallab's request for a visa renewal -- without triggering a comparable review by U.S. officials? Was the United States not informed or did U.S. authorities simply not take action in response? Either there is a continuing problem of intergovernmental communication or a continuing problem of bureaucratic lassitude. How can it be that an individual passenger (a) traveling from Nigeria, with its known security lapses, (b) not checking luggage and (c) purchasing a ticket with cash was not singled out for additional screening? What did he have to do -- wear a sign saying, "You might want to check my underwear"?

How can it be that screening technology is so lacking so long after the 9/11 Commission called for "priority attention" to detect explosives on passengers?

How can it be that our best line of defense seems to have been a combination of incompetence and bravery -- incompetence by the attacker whose device failed to detonate properly, and bravery by passengers who acted so quickly to subdue him and put out the fire?

And how can it be, in the face of all this, that the administration's communications strategy, cooked up on a conference call, was to assure us that officials were looking into things but in the meantime we should settle down?

This was not just one supposedly out-of-context stumble by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; it was the official line. Making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs resisted every effort to get him to acknowledge that something had gone seriously wrong.

President Obama finally got it right Tuesday with his acknowledgement of "systemic failure" that was "totally unacceptable." Whether this is an effort at damage control or a belated realization of what seemed obvious from the start, it's a better strategy than the previous approach.

The American people are not as stupid as the administration's initial approach assumed. They accept that a smart, determined terrorist can -- and eventually probably will -- slip through the best-constructed defenses. They cannot accept -- nor should they -- a system so slipshod as to let through a bungler like Abdulmutallab, with all the red flags that were waved, and ignored.

marcusr@washpost.com



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