December 28, 2009, 7:57PM
Tragedy was averted on Christmas Day when passengers tackled and subdued Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian national who apparently aimed to blow up Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam as it landed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Instead, the plane landed safely and Abdulmutallab is in custody.
The episode reflected well on the instincts of the traveling public, but it exposed failures in at least three categories: screening technology, intelligence sharing and, of course, domestic politics. All three, thankfully, are fixable.
The bomb ingredients that Abdulmutallab sought to detonate were hidden under his clothing, sewn into his underwear. If he had been sent through one of the advanced, see-to-the-skin screening machines, a screener would have seen them. As Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., has urged, those machines should be in place at any airport where passengers board planes bound for an American airport. Schiphole Airport in Amsterdam has some of the machines, but Abdulmutallab evidently wasn't required to pass through any of them.
Some resist the use of the machines on the grounds that they are invasive, in that they can make passengers appear to be unclothed. But, says DeFazio, a member of both the Homeland Security Committee and the Aviation subcommittee, this effect can be diluted with software that dulls the appearance of the human body, while retaining the ability to detect contraband. Alternatively, he notes, passengers may submit to a thorough frisking by hand, a choice Great Britain offers passengers at its airports.
The good thing about the sophisticated screening machines is that they defuse the corollary complaints about profiling. Such issues arose Dec. 27, when a Nigerian national on the same Amsterdam-Detroit flight was detained after he holed up in a lavatory. In that case, he was sick to his stomach, not harboring a bomb. But, because he was Nigerian and passengers and crew members were on high alert, they feared or assumed he was a terrorist. Their fears might have been allayed if they'd known he'd passed through an advanced scanner.
On the intelligence side, somebody at the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria obviously failed to act with sufficient urgency after getting a call from Abdulmutallab's father, concerned that his son might be plotting violence. The tip was shuffled forward, but nobody acted aggressively to check it out, much less place Abdulmutallab on a no-fly list. A tip from a known, credible source like Abdulmutallab's father, a prominent banker in Nigeria, should have received more attention than it did.
The most troubling and easily fixed failure, however, is for Congress -- specifically Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. -- to remove the hold that has prevented Erroll Southers from his appointment to the head of the Transportation Security Administration, a post that has been vacant since President Barack Obama took office. DeMint placed a hold on the September nomination of Southers, saying he wanted assurances that the TSA wouldn't unionize its security screeners. He said at the time "the safety and security of the American people are far too important to be controlled by union bosses."
Partly as a result, the TSA has been run this year by career civil servants, by nature reluctant to push change. DeFazio credits the previous TSA head, Kip Hawley, as being the kind of forceful, effective administrator that the agency needs today.
Incredibly, DeMint had the chutzpah to make the rounds of the weekend talk shows, arguing that Democrats had only themselves to blame for the vacancy atop the TSA. With all respect, if the senator really cares about the safety of the traveling public, he should shut up and stop invoking a fear of unions as a reason to block the appointment of an independent TSA administrator.
The Christmas Day episode in Detroit shows that the system didn't work, despite the initial assertions by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano -- who backed down from those claims a news cycle afterward.
The system, in fact, is a work in progress. It probably will never be complete, which means the government should never stop working to improve it. The initial steps announced by President Obama on Monday -- boosting security on flights and ordering reviews of the watch list and screening policies -- were good steps. But we must be looking constantly for better ones.