Underwear bomber warning

By Janice Kephart on February 2, 2010

The Washington Times, February 2, 2010

The 9/11 Commission recommendations on border and aviation security eerily predicted an attempt such as that made Christmas Day by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. One of the key phrases from the commission's report is that "for terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons." This plot has made clear to the world that while travel documents such as visas are as important as weapons to terrorists, air travel itself is also an essential component of the weapon.

The 9/11 Final Report and our staff monograph, "9/11 and Terrorist Travel," hit all the important points - watch lists, visa adjudication and pre-boarding vetting. The commission provided specific recommendations, and those implemented are a tremendous improvement over the pre-Sept. 11 border and aviation screening processes. However, gaps remain where recommendations have not been implemented, and the terrorists have been paying attention. The 9/11 Commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, could have predicted the Christmas Day plot with these recommendations, not implemented to date:

  • "The aviation screening function ... should utilize the larger set of watchlists maintained by the federal government" (broader than the "no-fly" and "automatic selectee" lists).
  • The Transportation Security Administration and Congress "must give priority attention to improving the ability of screening checkpoints to detect explosives on passengers. As a start, each individual selected for special screening should be screened for explosives."
  • Because officials at the borders encounter travelers and their documents first ... they must work closely with intelligence officials."
  • "The job of protection is shared among many defined border checkpoints. By taking advantage of them all, we need not depend on any one point in the system to do the whole job. The challenge is to see the common problem across agencies and functions and develop a conceptual framework - an architecture - for an effective screening system."

President Obama has stated more than once that the gaps were huge - both an inaccurate statement as well as an unfortunate message to send around the world, as it indicates that the United States is tremendously weak on security. What is accurate is that because of the nature of the plot, the ramifications of these gaps were huge, but not the gaps themselves. It is these small gaps as described in the commission recommendations that add up to a huge failure. Filling these gaps will never assure 100 percent against another successful terrorist attack, but it will edge aviation security closer to that assurance.

President Obama marked the Detroit incident as primarily an intelligence failure, and the American media continue to focus on the intelligence failures. Blaming the U.S. Intelligence Community - something the Obama administration has done more than once - is a convenient hook on which to hang these failures, but curing only those failures will not provide the efficiency and security the government needs to protect against terrorists using our airports and airlines.

To be clear, the role of intelligence in preventing terrorist plots is essential, but when teamed with border and aviation security, its relevancy occurs only when: (1) The intelligence community has analyzed information, (2) aviation and border systems have sufficient access to the intelligence in real time and (3) the decision authority within these systems is sufficient to stop the traveler. If any of these circumstances is lacking, the risk of terrorist success is high.

In Mr. Abdulmutallab's case, intelligence existed, but there was a gap in aviation and border systems obtaining that information in a timely manner. The intelligence itself also was not sufficiently analyzed or shared across agencies, highlighting issues with inadequate risk-assessment software tools and failures to integrate the border and aviation systems sufficiently with intelligence. Yet it was of little consequence that the intelligence was as solid or strong as it was if it could not reach the right people at the right time with the authority to make the right decisions. That required an aviation and border architecture in place to support the flow of information, and policy structures that put security first, especially in the area of visa issuance and revocation.

With five years behind us since the 9/11 Final Report was published and many of its recommendations made law and implemented, it is up to President Obama to continue implementation to fill in the gaps exploited by al Qaeda. Until now, he has not. He has received his wake-up call. Let's hope this time, his rhetoric matches the lessons already learned from the Sept. 11 attacks and other acts of terror. We may not have a second chance.