Leveling the Playing Field – Accelerating Counter-Terror Tech Procurement

While the United States successfully thwarted another attempted bombing of a domestic inbound aircraft by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the disrupted plot should tell Americans two important things: our intelligence and security agencies are doing excellent work, and continued vigilance is the price of security.

We need every available tool to combat and protect against terrorists. Terrorists (and criminals) can and do adopt the latest technologies and techniques to gain advantage over LEAs and the Intelligence Community, thus leaving U.S. citizens and our nation unacceptably vulnerable. While technology seemingly advances at the speed of light, LEAs and the IC adopt technology at the speed of law, exacerbated by the government’s glacial procurement processes. Not a match that is in the best interest of the safety and security of our nation and its citizens.

Take the Christmas 2009 plot as an example. Abdulmutallab walked onto a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam bound for Detroit carrying 200 grams of PETN, one of the highest power explosives known, and attempted to detonate it over the United States. He evaded Amsterdam’s airport security because the technologies and methods in use couldn’t detect the powder sewn into his underwear. The result of that attack led to taxpayer investment of nearly $750 million and widespread use of backscatter and Advanced Imaging Technologies (AIT) that are intended to prevent similar attacks. Though we (publicly) still don’t have all the technical details, it is speculated that the latest device was enhanced to reduce the chance of detonation failure as well as avoid detection by the AIT machines, though DHS Secretary Napolitano recently stated that it was likely the system would have detected the device. Which would be true if those technologies were available at the most vulnerable locations – the last point of departure (LPD) to the United States. It is unlikely we have to worry about an underwear bomber originating here in the United States. But as we’ve seen with Richard Reid, Abdulmultallab, and this latest plot, the vulnerability to U.S.-bound flights is from foreign airports where neither AIT nor other advanced technologies are uniformly deployed. Consequently, this system of non-uniform security practices is akin to locking the front door and leaving the back door open.

So what do we do now? AQAP’s chief bomb maker Ibrahim al-Asiri will continue to innovate ways to quickly thwart our security efforts. He will do this as we build our budgets, as we justify spending to Congress, as we work through requirements generation, procurement cycles, contractual award protests, and other bureaucratic hoops in hopes of being able to keep up with the next threat. Our intelligence and security efforts have to be 100 percent effective to prevent the next attack, and we know that is not possible under the best conditions. We don’t need to further reduce our odds of success by layering more bureaucracy on the process. We have to find a way to speed up the process to allow us to innovate – because al-Asiri won’t stick to our procurement timetables.