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.