Like a lot of Americans, I’ve grown increasingly disturbed by the story of the Yemeni-trained Christmas Al-Qaeda bomber and the failure of our nation’s counter-terrorism security to thwart his plot to blow up a plane flying to Detroit. Today, the news came out that the U.S. and Britain closed their embassies in Yemen over threats from Al-Qaeda. And former U.S. officials are making the rounds of the talk shows this morning discussing the breakdown.
I know U.S. officials have broken up other plots, and this a very difficult job. But we can and must do better.
I agree with my former colleague Steven Baker that this was partially a failure to connect the dots. Intelligence officials should have done a better job at figuring out that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused of attempted terrorism on the Christmas flight to Detroit, was connected to the terrorism operation involving a Nigerian man in Yemen that officials from the National Security Agency picked up on in their wiretaps.
But more than that I think it is a failure of weak rule-making. As soon as the Nigerian man’s father warned the American Embassy in Abuja (he even met with an official of the Central Intelligence Agency) that his son was being radicalized and had disappeared in Yemen, he should have been placed on the smaller no-fly list or selectee list–instead of the least-restrictive and far larger American watch list that flagged him for future investigation.
This is about as bright a red flag as you get. When he bought his ticket and showed up at the Amsterdam airport, U.S. officials should have never let him on that plane. But even if he wasn’t on a no-fly list, our software and intelligence rules should have identified him as a person who needed to be thoroughly searched before he boarded that plane. A search would have probably turned up his explosive kit.
A law enforcement official told the New York Times recently that “it was not unusual that a one-time comment from a relative would not place a person on the far smaller no-fly list, which has only 4,000 names, or the so-called selectee list of 14,000 names of people who are subjected to more thorough searches at checkpoints.”
So what changed? Why did we weaken our list rules? Al-Qaeda remains determined to kill Americans so our rules should be just as strong as they were after 9/11, and perhaps they should be stronger.
And here’s what really scares me: If this guy was not considered enough of a risk to get on the no-fly or selectee lists, then what have the several other hundred thousand people done to get on that list? And what are we doing about those people?
When I was reporting a lot on counter-terrorism security after 9/11, security officials talked a lot about the need for layering security. The idea was that even if one layer failed, then another layer would spot the risk. Clearly, this case shows we either need to strengthen our existing layers and/or add a few more to lower the risk of being attacked by another terrorist.