I was dismayed by the Obama Administration’s claim that our security apparatus worked in terms of foiling the intended attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Detroit-bound Northwest Flight 253. To quote Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, “One thing I’d like to point out is that the system worked.”

The system most assuredly did not work.

I am disappointed to have to take this stance. As I have watched gotcha media stories over the years about how the Department of Homeland Security “failed” because a reporter or GAO analyst snuck through one layer of security, I have become increasingly frustrated by the media’s lack of awareness that the nation’s homeland security strategy is based upon multiple layers of security. Getting through one layer doesn’t mean you’ll get through the next. Getting through even two layers still doesn’t mean you’ll be so lucky to get through a third. There is no such thing as 100 percent protection, which is why we need multiple layers of security.

However, in this case the system failed repeatedly. It shattered the confidence that the public should have that a layered system of security is at play. And for the Administration to come out and say that the “system worked” is to deepen – not strengthen – our sense of insecurity because of the outright foolishness of such a claim.

Let us count the ways in which the system failed:

The father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab reported to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria that his son was becoming increasingly radicalized and might pose a threat to the United States, the information was entered into the system at the National Counterterrorism Center and then largely dismissed with no follow up.

Next the terrorist was given a visa by the State Department, despite his name now being on a terrorist watch list. How that is even possible is beyond me. We interrogate and delay students simply looking to come to the United States to study in graduate school, but we hand out visas to individuals actually on a terrorist watch list?

Next the terrorist breezed through airport security with incendiary materials stitched into his underwear. One wonders where all the privacy groups are now. Probably hanging thinly to the Administration’s claim that everything worked great and there is nothing to see here. Napolitano actually went so far as to say, “There is no suggestion that he [Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab] was improperly screened.”

Huh? There is every suggestion that he was improperly screened.

Finally, the Administration falls back upon its now-trite argument that this was somehow the Bush Administration’s fault. The Washington Post reports on White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs comment that “White House officials struggled to explain the complicated system of centralized terrorist data and watch lists, stressing that they were put in place years ago by the Bush administration.” Good grief. At some point, the Administration is going to have to take responsibility for its own government.

Perhaps Napolitano meant that the “system worked” because this idiot managed to set himself on fire and several passengers leaped on him. Is this what we have come to? The government will no longer protect us from terrorists but we will have to protect it? There’s a confidence builder.

What we have here is a monumental failure of “the system.” This Administration’s claim to the contrary assumes that the American public is remarkably ignorant or that it simply isn’t worried about another terrorist attack and will accept such lame explanations.

Either of these suppositions is a dangerous place for the Administration. Dangerous for our country, from a counterterrorism perspective, at a time when international terrorists still view the United States as their greatest enemy. And, frankly, dangerous for the Obama team, from a political perspective, to assume that citizens and voters are intellectual slobs, which may create a lack of confidence by the public in this Administration’s grip on the terrorist threat to America.

After all, as this particular failed terrorist boasted: “There are many more like me.”

Update: On December 28th, Secretary Napolitano took back her claim that the system. See NPR’s report: “Our System Did Not Work,” Napolitano Concedes.

Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More
  • tjacampbell

    Ah, well, no, the system didn't work. It's only by matter of incompetence by either the bomber or the bomb maker that we're not wondering about the sudden catastrophic failure of yet another Airbus airframe. (a Boeing plot???? NO!) We have to understand the 100 idiot concept, set 100 idiots onto a task and the one who's concept succeeds through serendipity is declared a genius! We tend to doubt the effectiveness of our systems when something like this happens, but they're reasonably robust. The problem comes when we put modesty, ethnicity, expediency, political rectitude and pecuniary externality into a system that should care for none of these precepts. They are all exploitable vectors for ethical systems opposed to our considered norm. The 'so called' “failed” system, conveyed hundreds of thousands of people to their chosen destinations. It delivered their bags to the (mostly) correct conveyor belts. It 'failed' in that out of the hundreds of thousands of passengers in transit on the 25th of December, only one in 280 passengers on board one of 6000 aircraft had a bomb attached to his Y-Fronts. Now, I ask you, which system can you think of that works to that degree of precision? We're dealing with the hundred million idiot problem here! So, let's not kid ourselves, in terms of incompetence within Aviation, controlled flight into terrain, poor engineering practice and financial parsimony, have killed more people than terrorist action.

  • Jeff

    Well said.

  • Edward Alden

    All excellent points, and Napolitano has indeed been furiously backtracking on her claim that “the system worked” and the equally ludicrous claim that he was properly screened. Clearly it did not and he was not. And it does not make the administration look good to be trying to make that claim. Instead they should be doing everything possible to find out where the breakdown occurred and make improvements.

    What is particularly egregious is that many of the steps taken since 9/11 had been intended precisely to prevent a repeat of the Richard Reid near-disaster. And yet here is a terrorist who followed the Reid playbook down to everything but the shoes, and nearly succeeded.

    One quibble. The visa Abdulmutallab was granted was a two-year multiple entry visa, and was issued in 2008 well before there was any hint that he had headed down a radical path. So it's not quite correct to say that he was given a visa despite being on the terrorist watch list. The question, instead, is whether his visa should have been revoked after his name was added to the TIDE. I gather from comments made by Lieberman that there is no procedure in place that automatically triggers such an inquiry, and there should be. Even if one accepts that there was not enough information to place Abdulmutallab on the no-fly or selectee lists, there was certainly enough information to raise questions about whether he should have retained a U.S. visa.

    Further, the UK government recently denied him a renewed student visa, because the university he was attending was not an approved school. The UK has recently tried to emulate the post-9/11 U.S. model under SEVP by ensuring that only legitimate post-secondary institutions are allowed to accept foreign students, and that those students are properly registered. This tightening followed the discovery that 10 of the 12 men arrested in April in a UK-based terror plot had entered the country on student visas, and some had been enrolled at bogus colleges. Had the UK and U.S. governments been sharing that visa denial information (the U.S. and Canada share such information), that would have been another reason to revoke Abdulmutallab's visa.

    So the visa issue is an important piece of this, but the government needs to identify the problem precisely and not react with the sort of damaging crackdown on visas that occurred after 9/11. I hope as Congress investigates this issue it will be with that end in mind.