What We Can Learn from the Christmas Day Bombing Attempt


Mar 26, 2010

By Brian Michael Jenkins, Bruce Butterworth, Cathal Flynn

This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post on March 26, 2010.

President Obama's nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee this week that he would like U.S. airport screening to more closely resemble the Israeli process. Perhaps attention is turning to what really matters about the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253: what it can teach us about aviation security.

The Christmas Day attack represented a double failure: first to keep accused bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab off the flight and, second, to detect the crude explosive he allegedly carried. Fortunately, Abdulmutallab could not detonate his device, which probably wouldn't have brought down the plane. But our response to the "underpants bomber" won global notoriety for al-Qaeda in Yemen and reminded Americans of their vulnerabilities.

U.S. leaders should stop posturing and adjust intelligence collection and aviation security to better confront our adversaries. Here are some key lessons to keep in mind:

Airliners will remain targets. Since the first hijackings and airline bombings four decades ago, terrorists have remained obsessed with planes. Yes, aviation is the best-protected form of transportation. But terrorists constantly adapt as we deploy new security measures. In fact, tentative, privacy-respecting pat-downs probably led to the underpants bomb. Our efforts have driven terrorists toward smaller and less detectable but less reliable explosives that have to be assembled in the air. Such adaptations increase their chances of failure. But we must do more than accept that flights are always at risk.

Study what screening works — and what doesn't. The screening process, a 37-year accumulation of hardware and practices, should be overhauled. Wide-scale deployment of whole-body scanners today will add marginally to screening capabilities but will also increase the pressures on an already overburdened system. Such scanners, particularly when programmed to provide "privacy," would have missed the Christmas Day bomber's explosives, while less expensive trace detectors probably would have detected them. Post-attack testing eight years ago indicate that trace detectors almost certainly would have stopped "shoe bomber" Richard Reid.

We should not simply add on to our screening framework but systematically reconfigure security checkpoints to integrate several technologies and procedures based on the most likely threats and real-world detection capabilities. The TSA should conduct a thorough review of the effectiveness of technology and screening procedures in this country and abroad. Additionally, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano should—much like the armed services might—commission two separate, independent efforts. She should compare the results of all three and implement the most effective system based on real-world testing.

Don't treat all passengers alike. Detecting bomb components will require the integration of several technologies. There are no technical panaceas. Screening all passengers identically means that nearly all passengers will be screened inadequately. Stringent screening can be used on only a fraction of passengers, so intelligence must help define who they will be. A registered-passenger program would allow frequent fliers and others who submit to background checks to be screened less rigorously, letting authorities focus resources elsewhere.

Listen to the intelligence experts. The debate about who should have interrogated Abdulmutallab and whether he should be tried in civilian court does not address the fundamental issue of what Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair needs to prevent future Abdulmutallabs from boarding. Congress should be asking whether he needs clearer authority, different resources or both. Moreover, the phrase "connect the dots" trivializes the difficulty of intelligence work. It is easy to look back when you know what happened and who did it; it is much harder to sift through data that include thousands of names and fragments of information to detect a plot in advance. The president has said intelligence failures were systemic. Adjustments should be systemic and precise.

We should keep in mind that the last major reorganization of the government "intelligence community" proliferated intelligence centers, scattered precious talent and imposed complicated protocols. It would be better to streamline the system by placing a critical mass of talent at one location. The administration should remember this as it implements the results of its Homeland Security Quadrennial Review.

Intelligence and security mutually reinforce. Besides warning of plots, intelligence should identify trends that lead to changes in security tactics, such as looking for bomb components in new places. Changed security measures could cause terrorists to stumble across tripwires.

America is in a long-term struggle with al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In a war, the enemy may win some battles and cause some casualties. The task now is to calmly focus and reduce the risk to all who fly.

Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser at RAND Corp., was a member of the 1996 White House Commission on Aviation Security and Safety and is co-author of "Aviation, Terrorism and Security." Bruce Butterworth was director of civil aviation security policy and operations at the Federal Aviation Administration from 1991 to 2000. He has co-authored several works with Jenkins. Cathal Flynn was associate administrator for civil aviation security at the Federal Aviation Administration from 1993 to 2000.

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