I mean, when his own father is telling you to watch out for the guy … From CNN, a report on how it all went so almost horribly wrong:
(CNN) — It’s called the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, and weeks before authorities say he got on a plane with a bomb, Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab was in it.
The vast government databank, known as TIDE, is administered by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. It contains information about hundreds of thousands of people, the majority of them foreign nationals, who are suspected of having terrorist leanings.
An FBI official said AbdulMutallab was included in TIDE after his father warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria of his son’s hard-line beliefs and possible ties to militant Islamists.
To understand how he could have been under the government’s scrutiny and still make it onto a U.S.-bound plane with an explosive, you have to understand the way the government’s watch list system works. TIDE is just the start.
The FBI uses the raw information contained in the TIDE databank to determine whether to put the subject onto the government’s terror watch list, known as the Terrorism Screening Data Base. That list contains the names and aliases of about 400,000 people, but AbdulMutallab didn’t make the cut.
According to Chad Kolton, a spokesman for the FBI’s Terror Screening Center, there wasn’t enough hard evidence to back up AbdulMutallab’s father’s fears, and so he wasn’t placed on the terror list.
The bureau’s own Web site spells out the criteria for inclusion in the screening database, saying that “only individuals who are known or reasonably suspected to be or have been engaged in conduct constituting, in preparation for, in aid of, or related to terrorism are included.”
You mean, conduct like … traveling to Yemen for terrorist training? Stuff like that? Adding Mutallab to the terrorism watch list could have caused him to wind up on the 14,000-or-so-name “selectee list,” or the more exclusive “no-fly” list, which contains about 4,000 “folks” as GWB used to call them, who aren’t allowed to board any commercial flight bound for the U.S. But of course, that didn’t happen.
One question: why isn’t Amsterdam’s security also being questioned in all this? Just a thought…
Meanwhile, our suspect is being held at an “undisclosed location” after being treated for burns to his crotchity, and he’s probably thanking Allah that he didn’t try to pull this stunt during the previous administration, since if he had, right now he’d probably be getting waterboarded. And of course, we’re all thankful that these aren’t the Bush years, when such a plot would have prompted a fresh round of domestic spying, mail opening, totally unrelated U.S. citizen phone tapping, and probably a brand new war against one of the half-dozen countries where Mullatab has traveled along his journey to terrordom (to include the U.K., so Brits beware…)
Related: From the Boston Globe: average citizens are the last line of defense.
And as al-Qaida seeks to lay claim to the man with the bomb in his pants, President Obama is forced to issue the obligatory blustery statements about “hunting down the blah blah blah” and “bringing to justice the rah rah rah.” (Someone really should intervene in the White House communications department, to explain the basics of presidential P.R. Step one: halt vacation and hold an immediate press conference reassuring the country that the fact that one Nigerian with a burning underneath does not, I repeat, does NOT, mean that the world is coming to an immediate end. Step two: release the same statement in email form. Step three: fly back to Washington in time for the obligatory Joe Lieberman hearings, in which General X tries to talk our chickenhawk friend down from the idea of invading Iraq again, just in case.)
Not to make light of what could have been a very serious situation on board that plane, but it’s kind of shabby, don’t you think, to see the media and our government go through the same tired march every time there’s a terror threat. I guess I’d better prepare my kids to have their underpants thoroughly searched next time we go through the airport. After all, you can never be too safe. No really, you can’t EVER be too safe, especially in a free society. Still, as the Arizona Republic editorial board puts it:
The brush with disaster is a reprieve, a chance to learn. President Barack Obama on Monday took steps to use it, ordering reviews of the two sides of the failure: the watch list and security screening.
Both need to be smarter and more effective.
Airports need to go beyond metal detection to find potential weapons. They could use more bomb-sniffing dogs and thorough pat-downs.
The best approach, however, is probably whole-body scanners, which have had a tryout at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Yet the very effectiveness of the machines, with their ability to do a “virtual strip search,” has been a roadblock.
The U.S. House, in a non-binding vote in June, barred their use for primary screening. Privacy concerns, however, can be mitigated. They shouldn’t stand in the way of vastly improved security.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had her own failure on Sunday, with her jaw-dropping comment that the system was working smoothly. Even if the quote was out of context (Napolitano says she was referring to the follow-up), it was unnervingly complacent. By Monday, she sounded more determined to push for substantive changes.
This will require international cooperation. America should push now, while attention is riveted on the near-tragedy.
Amen. And here’s one more: hire people with a real interest in security, not just in a 9 to 5, to screen people at the airport. The same caliber of person who would go into the military or into law enforcement should go to the front of the line for TSA jobs, and these jobs should be given the respect, and the pay, commensurate with their importance to the lives of the passengers they’re ultimately there to protect. A little common sense would help, too, although if screeners stopped checking little old ladies, theoretically, al-Qaida would simply start sending little old ladies (hey, it could happen.) It’s not about profiling, but in this interconnected world, sometimes you’ve got to allow screeners to follow that little voice in their heads…