The botched Christmas Day bombing seems to have taught the Obama administration—if only belatedly—that when you're in a hole, stop digging. Team Obama's response to the incident aptly demonstrated why the president was correct to describe his administration's handling of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab's nearly successful effort to blow up Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight 253 as a "systemic failure," "totally unacceptable," and a "catastrophic" near miss. And the administration's ham-handed statements and actions after that near miss only compounded the intelligence and security failures that led up to it.
First, there was the Transportation Safety Administration's knee-jerk reaction to the attempted attack. The TSA drew up temporary regulations and e-mailed them to thousands of its employees and commercial-airline representatives. But the new restrictions on passenger activity on international flights prompted protests and ridicule, especially after they were leaked to two travel blogger-journalists—Chris Elliott and Steven Frischling—who published them on their websites. The agency began backtracking almost immediately: orders to pat down nearly all passengers, and to keep them seated with personal possessions off their laps at least an hour before a flight's arrival, suddenly became "discretionary," an anonymous TSA spokesman now said.
But the TSA kept digging its own hole. Last Tuesday, it launched an investigation into how Elliott and Frischling obtained Security Directive 1544-09-06, the temporary emergency regulations, which were due to expire on December 30 in any event. Rather than focus its energy and resources on discovering how the 23-year-old Abdulmutallab managed to board an American airliner wearing explosive-laden underwear—endangering nearly 300 other passengers flying from Nigeria or Amsterdam, where the plane stopped before heading for Detroit—the TSA sent three of its agents at night to the journalists' homes. Elliot and Frischling described them as "polite" but intimidating: they were armed with subpoenas and threats of grave legal consequences if the reporters failed to divulge their source. Under pressure, Frischling handed over his computer, which was returned the next morning, its software corrupted. Elliott called his lawyer and refused to turn over his computer or e-mails. The TSA gave him another two weeks to comply with the subpoena.
By this time, liberal and conservative media—from the Daily Kos to Fox News—were blasting the TSA for its weird priorities in pursuing journalists whose alleged crime was publishing information that the public might need to know. Finally, the two journalists received a "never mind" letter from John Drennan, deputy chief counsel in the TSA's Office of the Chief Counsel. It seems the Department of Homeland Security's adults had finally put a stop to this idiotic waste of time. The subpoenas were being withdrawn, Drennan wrote, because they were "no longer necessary." The TSA also offered to buy Frischling a new computer.
On Sunday, the TSA announced yet another set of rules aimed at enhancing jet travel security. From now on, agency spokesmen said, citizens of 14 nations—including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Cuba, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Algeria, Lebanon, Iran, Sudan, and Afghanistan—who are flying to the United States will be subjected to intense screening at airports. In theory, there is nothing wrong with taking a long, hard look at citizens from countries that are on America's list of state sponsors of terrorism or are considered, as one Administration official put it, "countries of interest." But publicly declaring that all citizens of such countries will be patted down and have their carry-on luggage subjected to intense scrutiny is likely simply to aggravate pro-American citizens of these countries without addressing the real problem—the sloppiness of the agency's terror watch lists. In the case of Iran, for instance, it punishes the intensely pro-American people of a country, but not their terrible government, since Iranian officials don't travel to the United States. And announcing such measures publicly compounds the damage: it will simply encourage al-Qaida to choose its terrorists from countries other than those on the TSA's list. Like so much that the government does, this new measure may sound tough, but it does not seriously address the weaknesses in America's counterterrorism activities—our inadequate intelligence and the sloppiness of the government's terrorist list system.
But the mess at the TSA—which has gone without a chief, thanks to Republican stonewalling of Obama's nominee—was hardly the administration's only problem. On the Sunday after Christmas, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, whose agency oversees the TSA, declared that the nation's alert system had worked just as intended. Instantly pummeled by incredulous Republican and Democratic legislators alike, she declared the next day that her comments had been taken out of context and that the system had, in fact, been riddled with worrisome errors and failures.
As awareness grew of the enormity of the missteps involved in the security community's failure to stop the young, wealthy, and well-connected Abdulmutallab from boarding the plane, Obama finally emerged from his secure compound in Hawaii—three days after the attack—to declare that a still-dysfunctional security system had brought the country to the edge of catastrophe. The president seemed to jolt his national-security team—most of whom, as far as the public was concerned, had gone missing in action after the incident—back to reality. Press secretary Robert Gibbs quickly dropped his happy-talk echoing of Napolitano and began discussing the flurry of "secure" telephone calls between the president and his national security team, CIA director Leon Panetta, and key members of the White House staff.
The Abdulmutallab case has once again exposed the holes in the government's security practices. These include the fact that no air marshals were on the Northwest Airlines flight because of budgetary and staffing cuts at TSA—raising questions about how exactly all those TSA tax dollars get spent. And why wasn't Abdulmutallab flagged for at least a major pat-down after he bought his round-trip ticket (in cash) and boarded his transatlantic flight, from warm Nigeria to frozen Detroit, with no luggage?
Obama and congressional legislators now promise to hold hearings on the incident, and they'll have plenty to talk about. For example, did Britain, which denied Abdulmutallab a visa last May, inform American security officials that it had refused entry to a student who held a multiple-entry visa to the United States? Who in the U.S. government was informed that in August, the National Security Agency overheard leaders of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (the terrorist group's branch in Yemen) discussing a plot against an American target that involved someone from Nigeria? And why did the visit to the U.S. embassy of Abdulmutallab's father, a former minister and one of Nigeria's wealthiest bankers—in which he warned about his son's radical tendencies and expressed fear that young Umar Farouk, who had disappeared in Yemen, might be going jihadi—have such little effect? At the very least, the young Abdulmutallab should have been bumped up from the all-inclusive travel-watch list of over 400,000 names to the "selectee" list of some 14,000 people subjected to closer scrutiny when they travel. And what exactly does it take to get onto the "no-fly" list of some 4,000 names, anyway? According to initial reports, the National Counterterrorism Center, formed after 9/11 to ensure that terrorist dots got connected, had some, if not all, of these facts at hand. Why did it fail to connect them?
There may be a silver lining to this troubling affair. If it awakens the Obama administration to the threat that America faces, and if we begin to hear more about our war against "terrorists" rather than against "extremists," it may well have been worth it. Happy New Year. It's never too early to turn over a new leaf.