Yesterday, President Obama finally gave what many think was a slightly more appropriate response to the Christmas day terrorist attack on a flight headed to the United States. He clearly seemed angrier and his statement was much more firm and contrite than his earlier, more defensive comments. In his prepared remarks, the President admitted mistakes had been made and announced a commitment to improve the system. He also mentioned that the intelligence community had information that should have been pieced together and made vague references to intelligence lapses. The AP reported:
“There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security,” Obama said.
“Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence, and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged,” Obama said in a brief statement to the media. “The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.”
Officials said Obama chose to make a second statement in as many days because a morning briefing offered him new information in the government’s possession about the suspect’s activities and thinking, along with al-Qaida’s plans.
Obama’s statement showed more fire than he had shown previously about the lapses that allowed the bombing attack to take place and came after his homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, had to backtrack on an assertion that “the system worked” in the Detroit airliner scare. Some have criticized Obama for not addressing the issue publicly sooner.
Now, it appears, there’s a reason for this tougher stance. Was it his greater understanding of the collective government failure? Was it a briefing the President received which illustrated the dire threats against the United States? Was it a realization that these attacks would continue despite his promises of a “new approach” to the world? Nah…it appears what really got Obama angry is that the CIA was involved.
Shortly after Obama made his speech, news broke that the CIA actually met with the father of terrorist Abdulmutallab (who warned the agency of his son’s radicalization) and that the information was not shared with the other federal agencies (presumably through the National Counter-Terrorism Center-the institution created post-9/11 to disseminate terrorist related information to the appropriate agencies).
Now, don’t get me wrong. This is a problem and one which deserves careful scrutiny and no doubt changes in policy but why in the world does it take a mistake by the CIA to get the President hot and bothered? Let’s review the other security failures at work in this latest terrorist attack:
First, the lists. The Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was deemed enough of a threat to be placed on a U.S. government terrorist watch list. However, he somehow managed to remain off of the “no-fly” list. Former State Department and DHS Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin has a thorough Op-Ed in the New York Times examining how someone can make it onto the “watch list” yet still board a U.S.-bound flight:
How did this come to pass? The no-fly list is reserved for those who are thought to pose a threat to airplanes. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man charged with the would-be Christmas Day bombing, was on the watch list because his own father had warned American officials about his son’s increasing radicalism. But an Obama administration official said “there was insufficient derogatory information available” to merit Mr. Abdulmutallab’s inclusion on the list.
Given Al Qaeda’s known obsession with attacking our aviation system and its tendency to go after the same target repeatedly, anyone on a terror watch list should automatically be placed on the no-fly list. To those who fear that doing so would tip off an unsuspecting terrorist that we are watching him, I say it is far better to do that than to risk an attack. At least, people known to be, or suspected of being, tied to terrorism should automatically be placed on the so-called selectee list, so that they are subject to especially thorough airport screening.
Two, the visa. Let’s not forget, Mr. Abdulmutallab had a visa to enter this country. Why wasn’t his visa revoked? Ervin also explains this mistake:
To get [a visa] in the post-9/11 world, an applicant must go to an American embassy or consulate to be interviewed by a consular officer and have his fingers scanned and his photo taken. His name is run through various databases to determine whether he is a known or suspected terrorist or criminal. In June 2008, when our embassy in London granted Mr. Abdulmutallab a two-year visa, according to officials, there was nothing to indicate that he had any terrorism ties. So far, so good. But after his father reported him to the American Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, this fall, shouldn’t his visa have been revoked? And shouldn’t aviation officials have been told to be on the lookout for him, should he attempt to board a plane bound for the United States?
Clearly, the answer is yes, but visa issuance isn’t treated as a security issue in the United States. Rather, its treated as a diplomacy issue and is handled by young, inexperienced staffers at the State Department–an agency with the clear mission to please foreign governments. This must change. Visa issuance should be shifted from the State Department to an agency charged with national security and homeland defense–the Department of Homeland Security. Elliott Abrams discusses how this change works in the UK over at National Review Online:
Moving visa functions to DHS is no panacea, obviously, but the case of the would-be airline bomber Abdul Mutallab is perhaps suggestive. His multiple-entry visa to the U.S. was not cancelled by State, not even after his own father alerted U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria of the danger he might present. His visa to enter the United Kingdom was cancelled, however, months ago. But not by the Foreign Office, Britain’s equivalent of the State Department. In the U.K., the Foreign Office does not handle visas; they are the responsibility of the U.K. Border Agency, established in 2008 and “responsible for securing the United Kingdom’s borders and controlling migration,” just like our DHS. Let’s learn the lesson. Members of Congress seeking to react to the Detroit near-calamity in a useful way should hold hearings right after New Year’s and get a move on. No more visas for State.
Lastly, there are concerns about airport screening and the Transportation Security Administration’s inability to deploy appropriate body scanning technology. The TSA has also had ongoing problems with leaked information on screening methods and policy directives and has been criticized for sloppy website security.
In short, there are clear government-wide, multiple-agency failures at work here. Whether it’s DHS Secretary Janet “the system worked” Napolitano’s near incoherent ramblings about the incident, the clear problems with visa issuance, the multiple lists being maintained to track terrorists, or the screening problems, President Obama has multiple reasons to get angry.
The CIA’s lapse is but one issue at play here-and the solutions will be incomplete if policy changes are solely directed toward the CIA. But it seems Obama’s most comfortable blaming the intelligence community and the CIA seems to be emerging as the scapegoat.
This was a government-wide failure that deserves government-wide changes.