Our Flawed Airport Security System
We have seen how easy it is to place blame with the benefit of hindsight in the case of alleged Nigerian suicide bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Two glaring glitches in airport security leap out as the suspect is being charged in federal court with trying to detonate an explosive device while Northwest Airlines Flight 253 approached Detroit from Amsterdam on Christmas Day.
One is that authorities failed to place Abdulmutallab on the no-fly list after investigating a complaint to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria by his father that he feared his son was becoming radicalized and unstable.
The other is the security system itself wasting time and money screening the wrong people for fear of being accused of invading privacy and racial profiling.
Political correctness aside, when was the last time since Sept. 11, 2001, has anyone other than an Islamic extremist with ties to the Middle East hijacked or attempted to blow up a commercial airplane?
Let’s focus on these two glitches.
When a prominent Nigerian banker and former government official phoned the American Embassy in Abuja in October with a warning that his son had developed radical views, had disappeared and might have traveled to Yemen, embassy officials did not revoke the young man’s visa to enter the United States, which was good until June 2010.
Instead, officials said Sunday, they marked the file of the son, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for a full investigation should he ever reapply for a visa. And when they passed the information on to Washington, Abdulmutallab’s name was added to 550,000 others with some alleged terrorist connections — but not to the no-fly list. That meant no flags were raised when he used cash to buy a ticket to the United States and boarded a plane, checking no bags.
No bags and a one-way ticket? That’s a red flag in itself if you believe the rules established by the Transportation Security Administration. Furthermore, Amsterdam Schipohl Airport where the Nigerian boarded the plane, is regarded as one of the most secure in the world.
The Netherlands airport has 15 advanced checkpoint screening devices that use millimeter waves to create an image of a passenger’s body, so officers in a secure room can see under clothing to determine if a weapon or explosive has been hidden. An official there said Sunday that they were prohibited from using them on passengers bound for the United States, for a reason she did not explain, according to the Times.
To date, only 40 of these screening devices have been installed at 19 airports in the United States. In a nonbinding vote in June, the House overwhelmingly approved a measure to prevent scanners from being used for primary screening.
But Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism analyst at Georgetown University, called the suspect’s ability to smuggle the device on board profoundly disturbing, given that the TSA has spent more than $30 billion on aviation security since 2004, the world’s airlines collectively spend an additional $5.9 billion a year, and PETN (the explosive chemicals used by the 23-year-old Nigerian) is well-known as a favored material for terrorist suicide bombers.
“This incident was a compound failure of both intelligence and physical security, leaving prevention to the last line of defense — the passengers themselves,” Hoffman wrote in an e-mail.
In a WaPo sidebar story:
“Security failed,” said Doron Bergerbest-Eilon, Israel’s senior-ranking counterterrorism officer from 1997 to 2000 and a former national regulator for aviation security. It is of little comfort that Abdulmutallab was stopped only after he allegedly failed to properly detonate the bomb, instead igniting a fire that alerted fellow passengers, Bergerbest-Eilon said.
“The system repeatedly fails to prevent attacks and protect passengers when challenged,” he said, adding that, in the minds of security experts, “for all intents and purposes, Northwest Flight 253 exploded in midair.”
While such methods have been “wrongly perceived as racial profiling,” Bergerbest-Eilon said, “past events have taught us that we cannot rely on intelligence alone to thwart major terror attacks.”
The most revolting blowback of the Christmas Day episode is the TSA’s knee-jerk response to upgrade screening resulting in longer delays at the terminals and our politicians scampering to cover their failures.
The job of a TSA screener is next to impossible. It’s as working at a conveyor belt looking for the burned potato chips among 10 million passing through. Miss one and there’s hell to pay.
Until a terrorist plants a bomb inside the purse carried by the little old white lady from Pasadena, people who do not fit the profile for a thousand reasons should be steered to an express line.