The System? It’s You!

Janet Napolitano’s appearance on CNN this morning, in which she tried to put a happy face on the fact that a known terrorist sympathizer got onto a flight bound for America and nearly brought it down, has been widely and justly derided:

NAPOLITANO: What we are focused on is making sure that the air environment remains safe, that people are confident when they travel. And one thing I’d like to point out is that the system worked. Everybody played an important role here. The passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action.

So the “system” consists of hoping there is an alert Dutch filmmaker on board, and that the terrorist’s detonator fails?

Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight. We instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas, both here in the United States and in Europe, where this flight originated. So the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly.

The idea that responding to terrorist attacks, rather than preventing them, constitutes “success” is eerily reminiscent of our policies pre-September 11. The administration’s spin was a little thick even for CNN’s Candy Crowley:

CROWLEY: I’m sorry, but if he was not improperly screened or properly screened, and yet you want Americans to feel safe on the planes, and so if it was properly screened and he got on anyway with that, it doesn’t feel that safe.
NAPOLITANO: Well, you know, it should. This was one individual literally of thousands that fly and thousands of flights every year. And he was stopped before any damage could be done.

But not by the Department of Homeland Security. And the fact that the terrorist was “one individual literally of thousands that fly” is supposed to make us feel safe? Ms. Crowley was sharp enough to see through that one:

CROWLEY: Let me ask you, because you are right, this was one individual, but that’s really all it takes. If a plane explodes, it just takes one individual. So let me ask you about those watch lists. Here is someone whose father came to the U.S. embassy and said I am worried about his ties, I am worried that he is becoming increasingly militant. He is on a list, but somehow no one looks at him more closely, apparently, than any other passenger. Is there some way — I mean, it seems to me there is all these computer lists, and this one has suspected ties, and that one — and this is the no-fly list. Is there not some way to merge this information so that he would have popped up someplace?
NAPOLITANO: Well, there is no suggestion that — he was on what’s called a tied list, which has half-a-million-plus names on it. And there is no suggestion that that was not shared information. The issue was, was there enough information to move him to the more specific lists, which would require additional examination or indeed being on no-fly status. And to date, it does not appear that there was any such information to move him from that tied list, which was shared and everybody had it, but to a more specific list which would require different types of screening at the airport.

So we have a no-fly list, and if a suspected terrorist is on it, he can’t board an airplane to the U.S. Beyond that, we may have a list that would lead to “different types of screening at the airport.” Napolitano was vague about this. But evidently being a known terrorist sympathizer who has been barred from entering the U.K. isn’t enough to invoke any questioning or search beyond that to which all air travelers are subjected. This, too, was a bit much for Crowley to swallow:

CROWLEY: So not even a father coming in, knowing what his son has been up to and reporting this to the U.S. embassy, is not enough? I mean, what puts you on the watch list if that is not enough?
NAPOLITANO: Well, indeed you can — let’s not get into that, because for one thing, we need to ascertain exactly who said what to whom and when.

Is Napolitano suggesting that the terrorist’s father may be lying? And if she has no idea “who said what to whom and when,” how can she assure us with such confidence that allowing Abdulmutallab to fly wasn’t a violation of policy or, at a minumum, an egregious blunder? Napolitano continues:

But also, you have to understand that you need information that is specific and credible if you are going to actually bar someone from air travel. He was on a general list, which over half a million people, everybody had access to it. But there was not the kind of credible information, in the sense [of] derogatory information, that would move him up the list.

Notice how, once again, Napolitano creates ambiguity as to whether there is any status in between “no fly” and “innocent business traveler.” Is there a group of people who are known to be radical Muslims sympathetic to terrorism, who are not barred from flying to the U.S. but are subjected to some kind of enhanced scrutiny when they show up at the airport? Here, Napolitano suggests that there is no such middle group. If there is, Abdulmutallab is a good example of the sort of person who should be on it. Even the mildest scrutiny would have revealed that he claimed to be traveling to Detroit for two weeks to visit friends, but had no luggage with him beyond a small carry-on.

Now, one of the things I think we will be doing over the next weeks is really looking at those watch lists procedures in light of this occurring and saying, OK, do those need to be changed? They have been in place for a number of years. Do they need to be adjusted in light of this event, just as we will look at our screening and screening technology once we know for sure what he had and what he had access to, to see whether any of that needs to be changed.

Damn it, Obama, you’re the President! Quit hiding behind your predecessor. The fact that a set of procedures has “been in place for a number of years” is no excuse. Just pretend they’re something important, like, say, a health care system. If they are inadequate, change them! In fact, given President Obama’s public pronouncements and his many radical appointments, the public naturally suspects that his administration may have loosened restrictions and made it easier for terrorists to carry out attacks. Whether that is the case presumably will come to light when this incident is investigated.
Crowley concluded by questioning, once again, the seemingly reactive nature of Homeland Security’s approach to the threat of terrorism. Once more, Napolitano failed to get the point:

CROWLEY: Secretary Napolitano, let me ask you. It seems to me when Richard Reid got on the plane and tried to light his shoe with explosives, we all began to take off our shoes. When some British terrorists began to put substances together, that’s when we got the 3.4. Now we have this man, so an hour before your flight lands, everybody has to have everything off their lap and they can’t use a blanket and they can’t put a pillow there. It feels as though we’re always a little bit behind the curve, we’ve always correcting the last problem. Is there an attempt to kind of look forward and say, OK, what else is missing here when we look at this picture that we — the little loopholes, if you will, that we can close here?
NAPOLITANO: Oh, absolutely. And that work is ongoing all the time. But we also recognize that it is important that we anticipate that someone could indeed get on a plane with intent to do harm, regardless of everything that we do. And that requires, then, everybody to know what to do when that occurs, which is what happened here, and the ability to immediately get information out to flights that are already in the air, as well as flights that are on the ground. And we exercised that. So we are constantly looking for new technologies, new methodologies and the like, as you suggest. But also, always practicing and exercising what needs to happen in terms of information sharing, not just with airports, airlines, but also with other law enforcement, state and local throughout the country and the like, practice that information sharing, getting products out quickly, smoothly, to make sure that additional measures are shared immediately for the protection of the traveling public.

Once again, Napolitano seems to take seriously the idea that the height of effective counter-terrorism is to get the word out after a terrorist attack occurs.
After today’s lame television appearances, a number of observers have called for Napolitano to be fired. There is no evidence, however, that her pronouncements are anything other than a faithful reflection of her boss’s policies.

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