The failed Christmas bombing plot is proving to be the first real test of the Obama administration's approach to homeland security. Will it respond with intelligent and targeted measures that improve the country's ability to defeat plots by a ruthless and adaptable enemy? Or will it react, as the Bush administration so often did after 9/11, with knee-jerk initiatives that look tough because they visibly delay or inconvenience many travelers but do little to enhance security?
So far, discouragingly, the answer seems to be more the second. The measures announced immediately following the incident were the stuff of late-night comedy. Those unfortunate enough to be flying right after Christmas were faced with a mandatory boarding gate pat-down of their "upper leg and torso," were ordered to remain in their seats for one hour prior to landing and to remove any "blankets, pillows, or personal belongings" from their laps. These steps perhaps would have stopped Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to detonate a bomb concealed beneath his underwear just prior to landing in Detroit. But there are many other places on the body to hide an explosive, and no particular reason that the bomber must wait for the last hour to set it off. And in any case, these proved to be temporary measures that will mostly be allowed to lapse, though why the threat is any less today than it was in the week after Christmas defies logic.
Now the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has ordered that all travelers carrying passports from so-called "countries of interest," as well as others flying through these countries, will face more intensive screening before they can board a U.S.-bound flight. Included on the list are Iran, Sudan, Syria, Cuba, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. For those lucky enough to be coming here through airports equipped with the latest body scanners, that may be only a minor, and perhaps embarrassing, inconvenience. But most will face intrusive patdowns, one more indignity in the gauntlet of security measures that citizens of these countries already face.
Patting down every grandmother arriving from Saudi Arabia or Pakistan is not likely to be much of a deterrent to al-Qaeda. Have we already forgotten that Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, carried a British passport and would not have been picked out under such a scheme?
It is hard to win hearts and minds when those who wish to travel to the United States are faced with repeated delays and indignities.
The challenge in responding to the threat of terrorism is to take measures that will reduce the threat of attack, while causing the minimum possible damage to the U.S. economy and to broader U.S. interests. That was a lesson that should have been learned in the aftermath of 9/11. Visa and other restrictions adopted in the wake of those attacks resulted in a sharp drop in the numbers of students, tourists, and business travelers coming to the United States. That not only hurt the U.S. economy, it damaged America's ability to influence potential friends around the world. It is hard to win hearts and minds when those who wish to travel to the United States are faced with repeated delays and indignities.
The justification for such measures is the truism that al-Qaeda's recruits come overwhelmingly from a dozen or so countries, and that citizens of those countries therefore deserve extra scrutiny. And that makes sense, up to a point. Citizenship and travel history are among the factors that the United States must consider in determining who might pose a threat. But they are far from determinative. There are many travelers from these countries who are well-known to the United States, have been here frequently, and pose no threat. At the same time, we know that terrorists carrying all manner of European passports have hatched plots, and that the United States itself has faced threats from those living inside the country.
Instead of implementing such broad and indiscriminate measures, the Obama administration should undertake a detailed assessment of what went wrong in the Christmas bombing plot, and learn from its mistakes. There are at least three issues. The first is the failure of transportation security officials in Amsterdam, where the flight originated, to pull Abdulmutallab aside for the extra scrutiny that would almost certainly have revealed that he was carrying explosives. The United States has spent a great deal of political effort since 9/11 demanding that airlines and foreign countries provide advanced information on passengers precisely to help in identifying those who deserve a second look or more before they can board an airplane. There were many reasons to examine Abdulmutallab, including his father's unusual warning of his turn to radicalism volunteered to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria, and the fact that Abdulmutallab paid for his ticket in cash, which has long been a red flag. Was this simply a mistake by lower-level officials, or are the targeting systems that DHS uses to help identify suspicious passengers missing some crucial variables?
Secondly, the administration has rightly launched a thorough review of the watch-list process. There have long been concerns about unwarranted expansion of those lists, and the difficulty that innocent people face getting their names off. That remains a significant problem, and simply throwing more names on to the "no fly" and "selectee" lists will make it worse. But this case demonstrates a need for additional flexibility at the front end so that the lists can be revised and updated more quickly when new information becomes available. The watch list process should be one that responds quickly to new intelligence, but allows individuals who are wrongly identified to get their names removed with a minimum of hassle.
Finally, it should be asked why the available information about Abdulmutallab did not automatically trigger a review of his U.S. visa. As a student in London, he had held a multiple-entry tourist visa since 2008, which meant he was free to enter the United States without the additional scrutiny required of initial visa applicants or those renewing visas. There is no evidence that the State Department made a mistake in issuing him a visa at the time, since his turn to radicalism appears to have come later. But there should clearly be procedures in place to require a review of existing, multiple-entry visas when new information suggesting a terrorist link becomes available. The State Department appears to be moving in that direction quickly, and is further working to ensure that airlines will be notified promptly when a U.S. visa is revoked.
Failed attempts like the Christmas bombing can be valuable if the administration and Congress use it as an opportunity to learn from what went wrong, and to improve U.S. capabilities to identify genuine threats. But if the United States responds with crude measures like mandatory body searches for all citizens from certain countries, it will simply give students, business travelers, and tourists from these countries one more reason not to come to the United States. In a long struggle that requires winning friends as well as defeating enemies, such a response will do far more harm than good.