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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Why the security system failed to detect the underwear bomber and why it will continue to fail

There has been much finger pointing since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed bombing of the Christmas Day Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. Originally the Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS) declared that the system worked, and then the President countered her and stated the system, specifically the Intelligence Community, failed as a whole. As a terrorism and homeland security expert, I must agree with the President. And, regardless what his counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has claimed, the one, incontrovertible reason our system failed was due to the lack of information sharing. But even more importantly, this was not the first time the system failed due to a lack of information sharing since 9/11.

According to media reports, the United Kingdom’s intelligence services were already aware of Abdulmutallab’s potential for violence as was his own father who reportedly informed our own State Department. Unfortunately, the State Department failed to do two very important things: first, they failed to check their own records and realize Abdulmutallab was in possession of a U.S. visa. That would have ended his ability to travel to the U.S. and none of the rest would matter. However, their second mistake was failing to pass that information to the rest of the IC, most importantly, to DHS, which would have guaranteed that even if Abdulmutallab was able to enter one of our neighboring countries, he would have been prevented from crossing a land border into the U.S.

The lack of information sharing persists even with the lessons learned from 9/11 and the offices put into place since to facilitate better information sharing. For example, according to the media the FBI and DOD were in possession of information that indicated U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan was in contact with the same Yemeni-based radical sheikh, Anwar al-Aulaqi, that Abdulmutallab was emailing before his attack. Like the situation with Abdulmutallab, the information on Hasan was not shared with the rest of the IC.

In response to the failed Christmas attack, President Obama has ordered a surge in the number of Federal Air Marshals (FAMs). But how would this prevent future Abdulmutallabs from carrying out another attack? The passengers were able to subdue Abdulmutallab, once he tried to ignite his detonator. If his detonator worked properly, and even if FAMs were aboard, they would simply be among the casualties being picked up off the ground. While adding FAMs is a good step forward in our response strategy, the public should not be fooled into believing FAMs are the answer to secure flights. Our prevention strategy must be just that, to prevent something like this from happening to begin with.

Our security strategy is based on a concentric circle, or layered, approach, which is the right way to do it; if one layer fails the subsequent layers should work. However, the one, single point of failure, is information sharing. This links all the other layers in the security strategy so that departments and agencies working in one layer know what is happening in all the other layers. In both cases mentioned above information sharing was non-existent, thus allowing the entire system to fail and permitting one of the two attacks to succeed. That is a 50% success rate for the terrorists. Unless serious doctrinal changes are made at the departments and agencies most responsible for failing to share information, this will continue and sooner or later, regardless of how many FAMs are aboard or how much you make passengers strip before boarding a flight, one of these violent extremists will achieve martyrdom, at the expense of a few hundred, or even thousand, American citizens.

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