My friend, and fellow Security DeBrief blogger, Stewart Baker, has raised a number of questions in his recent blog posting, “Al Qaeda Failed. What About Us? Ten Questions.” These questions exemplify the way too many policy-makers try to influence political outcomes – and that is by using the time-worn, law school technique of asking Socratic-style questions that hint at – but rarely provide – answers. The inference derived from those questions, however, is not difficult to comprehend.

Of course, it is always easier to ask questions than to provide answers. But there are times when the questions themselves should be questioned. This, I believe, is one of those times. Stewart’s questions imply that the blame for the Underwear Bomber’s actions should be laid on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or some foreign entity.

Sorry, but I am just not buying it.

There is no question that security practices can be changed by U.S. Government agencies; that improvements can be made in safety procedures; that new technology and screening technology can be implemented; and, that information holders with knowledge of a person’s potential terroristic tendencies should adopt a “need to share” culture.

But before Stewart starts rattling off queries in an effort to shape the anticipated congressional oversight hearings (or perhaps the press coverage in advance of those hearings) concerning this event, I think a disclaimer of his own involvement in another notorious political debate would have helped. This debate was one where he ultimately concluded that DHS should not object to the Dubai Ports World (DPW) acquisition of the British-owned Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) and P&O’s wholly-owned U.S. subsidiary, P.O. Ports North America. Had he done so, it might have given some much-needed context to his commentary. One remembers that it was only after intensive political pressure from key members of Congress that DPW postponed and eventually walked away from that acquisition.

The key point is not that DPW failed to conclude their acquisition, but that in spite of initial questions about it, Stewart used his considerable intellect and good judgment to conclude that potential security concerns did not outweigh the decision to let the deal proceed.

Now, fast-forward to November of this year when the embassy official in Nigeria who, when advised by the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab that his son was involved in possible radical activity, made a decision to report it. Yet, someone apparently believed there was insufficient information to recommend elevating Abdulmutallab to a more serious status. That official (and others in the analytical chain) made a judgment call that is now being second-guessed by political opportunists.

Stewart understands the unfairness of what it can be like to face a “fix the blame, not the problem” political windstorm, and therefore, I am surprised at some of the questions he posed in his recent blogs. For example:

2. One report suggested that the visa was granted to attend a religious meeting. Is there some political correctness problem that makes State reluctant to deny visas for such travel?

Well, I for one hope that State Department officials are quite reluctant to deny visas where the purpose is to attend a religious meeting, and my reason has nothing to do with political correctness. Frankly, I don’t want federal officials making decisions about the validity of someone’s religious beliefs. When we get to the stage that we have government officials denying visa applications because they think someone’s religious viewpoint is out of whack, we are only one step away from imposing a “religious correctness” test – and I have real problems with that. We are NOT a Caliphate.

Or what about these questions:

7. How good was the air travel screening in Nigeria?
8. If it wasn’t that good, and I suspect it wasn’t, in part because the plane was not bound for the U.S., did
Schiphol fall down on the job by not properly rescreening Abdulmutallab?

There is an implied arrogance in these questions that the Nigerians or security forces in Amsterdam have a poorly designed screening system and that the result would be different had the screening occurred elsewhere (read, “in the United States.”)

The implication – if that is what he meant – is based on a false premise, which is that TSA procedures and technology would have stopped Abdulmutallab from getting on an airplane and flying inside the U.S.
We might have gotten lucky, like we did when the Millennium Bomber was caught by a Port Angeles, Washington CBP officer ten years ago because she thought Ahmed Ressam looked “hinky.” The probable action today, however, is that Abdulmutallab would not have been stopped by TSA (short of a “hinkiness” determination).

Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, bolstered by activist groups, have made a decision that an individual’s privacy trumps the application of technology permitting whole body scans of hidden materials, such as explosives. That decision can be changed, of course, and it may be – but it is hard to suggest blame should be placed on the Nigerian authorities (or those at Schiphol airport) when U.S. screeners would have likely done nothing different.

And finally, there is this question:

9. Have we let European objections to US screening standards affect the security of flights with connecting passengers?

The obvious answer is that the U.S. itself has the exclusive right to set standards for security of flights that land in our country. We have the right to forbid flights from landing here if we don’t think those flights will be safe and secure.

If the Europeans (or anyone else for that matter) impose standards that we don’t like, we have the ability to take action. That action, of course, would have serious consequences for international travel and commerce. But we cannot claim that someone else’s screening standards are insufficient and then sit back and accept flights and passengers who transit through that country without acknowledging our own complicity.

Stewart’s question implies that we ought to be able to dictate global standards. The perceived arrogance of that type of “my way or no way” approach is what hardened our foreign allies’ positions and led them to be less supportive in a range of global initiatives we desired. Stewart knows this heavy-handed approach did not work when he was a DHS official – and it won’t work today. Yet, he persists in pushing the idea – and while I favor strong safety and security procedures coupled with advanced technology detection systems, a more effective security program would place increased emphasis on identifying the “human factors” that lead people to do bad things.

Unfortunately, the current and previous DHS administrations have repeatedly cut the funding for “human factors” research – and rumors of further cuts in the upcoming FY11 DHS budget have been rampant for the past few weeks. Such cuts are, in my mind, unconscionable.

At a time when DHS Science and Technology (S&T) has to beg for money for legitimate research projects, any prioritization that shortchanges “human factors” research of new screening techniques in favor of hardware expenditures needs to be revisited by DHS officials before the President’s budget is released after the first of the year.

As the White House and Congress begin their investigations, it is good that the right questions get asked. It will be even better if the answers are helpful in making good decisions about the proper course going forward. As I said at the beginning, sometimes the questions need to be questioned. Our security depends upon it.

Stewart, my friend, back to you.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More
  • Stewart Baker

    David takes issue with some of the questions I raised about the Christmas attack. I think he's reading more into the questions than he should. They were just that — questions that needed answers. Some we got quickly; there wasn't any obvious reason to deny a visa to Abdulmutallab in 2008, so there's no reason to suspect political correctness was at work. Some came more slowly; but I don't see a strong reason to suspect that screening standards at Schiphol or Lagos fell below TSA's.

    It's possible that David was misled by the timing of the Security Debrief post, which was delayed for a few days. The post and the questions appeared on the day after the attack, when little was known. It didn't get to Security Debrief until three days later. By then, we knew a lot more, and I'd already posted “Six Uncomfortable Answers,” which I fear David didn't see. (…)

    I think the timing accounts for some of the heat in David's post. He assumed that a hidden agenda was being subtly advanced by asking questions that had in fact already been answered in the press. But, as my Skating on Stilts posts about EPIC and the Business Travel Coalition show, I don't usually feel the need to resort to indirection or Socratic questions to get my point across.

    • lived in NL

      Schiphol has conducted eyes-on personal interviews for all travelers to the U.S. (including U.S. citizens) since the Pan Am, Lockerbie incident. They do this on top of all of the other security measures, immediately prior to boarding–scrutinizing one's passport and one's face and one's reaction to questions. Schiphol is not the weak link.

  • Thanks for the civil debate to Stewart and David. That's what this forum was established for — to prompt intelligent and lively discussion.

  • John W. Willmott With all due respect to Stewart Baker: I SAY AT -there will be no peace, security and prosperity for the terrorist, lawless Bush/Obama USA until it is out of the illegal occupation business and ends its blind support of Israel's illegal occupations in accord with the law and U.S. Constitution and the U.N. Charter as well stated by the 1993 WTC bombers in letter to NYT in March 1992 – in effect – “US stop all support of Israel and stop interfering in the affairs of Arab nations or we can get you anytime – anywhere.”
    Count the numbers, assets, means and willingness to die for Israel and the USA – on both sides. Remember “the kid who looks like your own kid is the one who will push the button.
    Hear the innocents' voice from the grave: JWW Jan. 2, 2009

  • smith

    Is anyone else confused about why the FBI is not mentioned in the context of connecting the dots in this terrorist incident? If one thing was clear after 9-11, it was that FBI is the lead for countering terrorism. FBI has offices all over the world. Is it possible that there is still a divide between international and domestic counter terrorism? Members of the public have accepted that U.S. person and non-U.S. person data is integrated and shared by Google/credit card companies/banks without walls. Is what is allowed by the NCTC, less? Is the NCTC really integrating all source information, regardless of whether the info originated within or outside U.S. borders?
    - If a tip comes in about someone inside the U.S., people are told to contact the local FBI in their U.S. region. Do these “tip/clues/dots” come in to the NCTC too, or only if there is a perceived international nexus?
    -If a tip comes in about someone outside the U.S., this is considered a dot to be connected. What is the difference between a “dot” and a domestic “investigative lead” and why wasn't the FBI office in Yemen or Nigeria mentioned as being looped in? When was the FBI first alerted by CIA/DOS or was it just the analyst sitting in the NCTC”s FBI chair that is supposed to inform other FBI colleagues?