"Systemic Failure"

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 30, 2009

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There can be little doubt that the attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253 exposed a significant hole in our airline security procedures. After the initial ham-handed attempt to convince us that “the system worked,” members of the Obama Administration finally appear to be embracing reality:

President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the intelligence community had bits of information that should have been pieced together that would have triggered “red flags” and possibly prevented the Christmas Day attempted terror attack on a Detroit-bound airliner.

“There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security,” Obama said.

Senior U.S. officials told The Associated Press that intelligence authorities are now looking at conversations between the suspect in the failed attack and at least one al-Qaida member. They did not say how these communications with the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, took place—by Internet, cell phone or another method.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the conversations were vague or coded, but the intelligence community believes that, in hindsight, the communications may have been referring to the Detroit attack. One official said a link between the suspect’s planning and al-Qaida’s goals was becoming more clear.

Intelligence officials would not confirm whether those conversations involved Yemen-based radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, but other U.S. government officials said there were initial indications that he was involved. Al-Awlaki reportedly corresponded by e-mail with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5.

“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.”

The fact that all of these signals were missed is, quite frankly, terrifying. To compare “the system worked” with “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job” is entirely appropriate. Consider all of the uneasy questions we are now faced with:

- How did airport security, improved at much cost after the 2001 terrorist attacks, miss the explosives concealed on the bomber’s body?

- How did the terrorist watchlist system allow Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to both keep his American tourist visa and avoid extra flight screening despite his father telling authorities his concerns about the younger man’s radicalization?

- Why didn’t Abdulmutallab’s lack of luggage, and cash purchase for an international flight, raise suspicions?

- Why was the plot thwarted only by an apparent explosive malfunction and fellow passengers’ aggressive action?

What is the use of having extra security if all of these warning signs were overlooked?

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