Eight years later, dots still unconnected.
In a mere week and a half, the Obama administration’s line on the Christmas Day terror attempt has undergone a remarkable evolution.
The weekend before last, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asserted that Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was acting alone. President Obama described him as “an isolated extremist.”
How did they know? They didn’t. A few days later, Obama said that al-Qaida “trained him, equipped him with those explosives and directed him to attack that plane headed for America.”
On Tuesday came something far more disturbing. Obama said explicitly that U.S. intelligence had reports of Abdulmutallab’s ties to al-Qaida prior to the attack, “but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list.”
If that’s true, it’s shocking news eight years after 9/11.
Meanwhile, the administration is moving to expand the use of body scanners at U.S. airports, mandate strict scrutiny of air travelers from 14 countries linked with past terrorism and inconvenience ordinary passengers a little more.
At the moment, we can’t quarrel with any of the new procedures. If there’s some overreaction in this, that’s an inevitable result of a terror attack that almost blew a jet full of passengers out of the sky. The installation of more body screeners is especially important, given that these devices can detect some explosives other technologies cannot. Misguided privacy advocates have been fighting them for years; it looks as if Abdulmutallab has finally put an end to the argument.
Still, none of the new measures will provide an ounce of additional security if the people operating the technology, analyzing the intelligence and maintaining the no-fly list have the competence of Barney Fife. Real protection doesn’t come from requiring 86-year-old women to take their shoes off. It comes from identifying the likes of Abdulmutallab and stopping them long before they get anywhere close to a boarding gate.
The game is getting tougher. It appears now that al-Qaida was behind the suicide bombing that killed seven CIA personnel and a Jordanian intelligence officer at a base in Afghanistan last week.
The man who penetrated CIA security and pulled off that devastating attack seems to have been a triple agent – thought to be secretly working against al-Qaida on behalf of the CIA, really working for al-Qaida against the CIA.
Terrorism doesn’t come much more sophisticated than that. The Afghanistan attack has something in common with the aborted Christmas bombing: Neither was stopped by seemingly stringent procedures, and both might have been have been stopped by better intelligence. In combating terror, connecting dots is far more effective than removing shoes.