Thursday, December 31, 2009

Lessons we should learn from failed terror attack

By DeWayne Wickham

So where do we go from here? What should the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack teach us about keeping airplanes and their passengers safe?

The first lesson is that hardening our defenses at home ought to be a more important goal than nation-building in Afghanistan. While the Obama administration is sending more troops to Afghanistan, al-Qaida is reinventing itself in places like Somalia and Yemen, where the Christmas Day attack was hatched.

Bogging down tens of thousands of American servicemen and women in Afghanistan and Iraq siphons both troops and billions of dollars from the more focused effort needed to disrupt and destroy al-Qaida's far-flung operations.

Another lesson we should learn is that security at U.S. airports is porous. Despite creation of the Transportation Safety Administration and increased screening of air travelers since 2001, a 23-year-old wannabe terrorist nearly brought down an American commercial aircraft with 267 people aboard.

Body-scanning machines could have uncovered Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's evil intent before he boarded a Detroit-bound plane in the Netherlands, but few U.S. airports use them.

And then there's this lesson: Eight years after U.S. intelligence and security failures contributed to the success of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, similar glitches helped keep Abdulmutallab off this country's no-fly list and out of the cross hairs of the FBI's counterterrorism task force. Weeks before Abdulmutallab's clumsy bombing attempt, his father warned U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria that his son, a devout Muslim, had been radicalized.

U.S. intelligence had information that a Nigerian was in Yemen preparing for a terrorist attack. Abdulmutallab paid cash for a one-way ticket to the United States and boarded the plane with no luggage.

U.S. intelligence agents not only failed to piece all this together until after Abdulmutallab failed to set off his bomb; they also missed another warning sign: Government officials in Britain refused to grant the Nigerian, who attended school in Britain from 2005 to 2008, a visa to return to the country after discovering he'd falsified information in his application.

"A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable," Obama said.

He's right, but fixing what's broken won't be easy. Part of the solution is better information-sharing and coordination among the State Department, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. That was promised after 9/11, but apparently it's still a pipe dream. Better coordination between U.S. and British intelligence agencies also is needed.

That fight has to be waged with the "new think" needed to defeat small pockets of terrorists in countries around the world — not the "old think" that has much of America's military might bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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