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Air terror came way too close this time

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Dec. 28, 2009 at 10:51 pm with No Comments »
December 29, 2009 9:06 am

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

There’s something to be said for getting shot at without getting hit. It tends to focus the mind.

Americans are once again very focused on airline security since Friday’s foiled bombing of a Detroit-bound jetliner. The near-catastrophic suicide attack has reminded us that there are plenty of anti-American terrorists out there – and still plenty of ways we could be doing a better job of stopping them.

That particular attack was reportedly stopped by a malfunctioning detonator and a passenger who lunged over seats to tackle Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. It should have been stopped much earlier, by denying the Nigerian suspect a visa to visit the United States in the first place. His father, a retired Nigerian bank chairman, had recently warned the American embassy in Lagos that his son may have fallen in with terrorists.

Sounds like a very credible source, but the red flag only put Abdulmutallab on the Department of Homeland Security’s longest and least reliable watch list – not the “no fly” list that could have barred him from both a visa and the flight. One Obama official said there was “insufficient derogatory evidence available” to look more closely at him.

That makes it sound as if the government bears the burden of proving the threat from a suspected militant. Actually, someone like Abdulmutallab – a foreigner on foreign soil – has no right whatsoever to enter the United States; the United States can grant that privilege, or not, on its own terms. Its own terms should certainly include a clean bill of health with regard to suspected terror ties.

We’ll take Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at her word that she didn’t really mean to say Sunday that “the system worked.” But she also sounded dangerously complacent when she suggested that flying was perfectly safe and that Abdulmutallab – who was carrying a sophisticated explosive used by al-Qaida previously – had acted alone.

Napolitano’s response smacked of political damage control. President Obama himself on Monday assured the nation that his administration is taking this attack very seriously. We hope this marks an end to the creeping lassitude that let someone like Abdulmutallab travel freely through international airports and board a flight to the United States.

This near-miss ought to strangle in the cradle a foolish congressional measure that seeks to ban body-imaging screening at U.S. airports. That technology – which can find objects under clothing – is one of the few things that might have kept Abdulmutallab from smuggling his bomb aboard in his pants.
American airports now have 150 such scanners in place – but more than 2,000 checkpoints to cover.

Amsterdam, where Abdulmutallab connected to his U.S. flight, is reportedly well equipped with the technology – but officials are under the impression that America prevents its use on U.S.-bound passengers.
Some don’t like the scanners. “You don’t need to look at my wife and 8-year-old daughter naked in order to secure that airplane,” said one member of Congress last summer.

If modesty is the concern, female passengers could be scanned by female TSA personnel. But the prospect of someone seeing a shadow image of a wife and daughter seems preferable to someone hunting for their bodies after a bomb has gone off in flight.

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