Thursday, January 7, 2010

People: the Best Homeland Security

I imagine someone might be reading this on a mobile device as they are in an interminable security line at the airport waiting to go on spring break (they wisely got there early). But know this: the most draconian security measures we are proposing - full-body scans and extensive pat downs/strip searches - still would not have caught the Christmas day "Underpants Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
I was going to write that because he flew from Nigeria Abdulmutallab wouldn't have gone through a full-body scanner, but it turns out that Nigeria's international airport already has scanners. It doesn't seem Abdulmutallab was scanned, since as the Truman Project's Melissa Skorka points out, the workers in many developing countries' airports are often concerned with things other than safety. But the real story, as Marc Sageman discussed at a Middle East Policy Council event today, is that Abdulmutallab carried only about three ounces of explosive, the equivalent of three packets of sugar, and it is extremely unlikely that either a body scan or a pat down would have discovered the packets. As another panelist today mentioned, Yemen now has a very creative bomb maker, and though both the butt bomb and the underpants bomb have failed, he will keep trying. Three sugar packets worth of powder makes me think he could hide it in actual sugar packets, or as tooth powder, or really just about anywhere.
We'll know more about what exactly led to the breakdown of intelligence in the case of the underpants bomber when the unclassified version of the report is released later today, but we do know this: our best defense is alert, smart people talking to each other. We need our intelligence community to do its job. The National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) is designed to bring representatives from the various agencies to share information with each other and put their heads together. One person should poke their head up over the cubicle and say "hey, this guy in Nigeria says his son is becoming radical" and another says "hey, I know of a Nigerian posting some radical thoughts online" and a third could say "hmm, the British just revoked a Nigerian's visa. Maybe we should do the same thing." But it didn't seem to work. No wonder people are clamoring for NCTC director Michael Leiter's head. Of course the NCTC has bigger problems, but Leiter has had plenty of time to work on them.
We also need as much interaction between governments and people in other countries. As much as an Obama Doctrine currently exists, it is based on the idea of smart power, and that means we need to keep our foot on the gas with diplomacy, exchanges, and training. DHS' Office of International Affairs needs to be fully staffed and step up its mission working on training, cooperation, and increasing security practices around the world. And people need to keep traveling the world and showing the good and productive side of Americans.
Finally, homeland security is everyone's responsibility. Who became suspicious and subdued Abdulmutallab? Not an air marshall (there wasn't one): other passengers. Same thing for Richard Reid, the shoe bomber. The DC Metro system constantly has announcements to report suspicious packages and the like. An alert and educated public can be our best weapon, since even DHS can hire only so many people.
DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano said "the system worked" in the aftermath of the attempted bombing, a quote she clearly regrets. Parts of the system didn't work, the parts we pay billions of dollars a year for, and clearly those parts need to work better. But if you include everyone in the system, than the system did work. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks everyone wanted to help, and many did by donating blood or needed materials. President Bush had an opportunity to tell everyone that they were part of the solution, and that their role was to always be vigilant. Instead he told them to go shopping. Luckily for us many got the message anyway. People are the most important defense against terror.

1 comment:

  1. It's hard to argue with the role that alert travelers played in the cases of the shoe bomber and underwear bomber, and such public vigilance is clearly a help to public security. But there's a potential downside, too, in the form of increased general paranoia and racial tensions in public and the rending of the social fabric than can come from having everyone around you be a potential informer. I'd hate to see a rash of false reports for personal vendettas, and brown-skinned passengers with traveler's diarrhea getting regularly tackled by fellow passengers.