I haven’t commented so far on the underwear bomber, the chap from Nigeria on a plane bound from Amsterdam to Detroit who was stopped before he could detonate a bomb that was, apparently, sewn into his underwear. James Joyner’s round-up and several follow-up posts here, here, here, here, here and here are probably the best coverage in the blogosphere of the matter.
I have a few observations of my own that I’d like to throw into the mix. While I agree with James’s repeated point that the Travel Security Administration’s reactions have been misguided, I don’t think that reacting to the attempt per se is misguided all. For all we know this particular nutcase may have been a probing attack. A probing attack is one in which, if there’s a light or no response, can be followed with a more extensive assault in pursuit of some major goal. The proper response to a probing attack is not to ignore it but to adjust your defenses appropriately.
We aren’t really sure of what the entire story is behind this incident but IMO it certainly appears as though it’s a problem of information. There were apparently warnings to the U. S. authorities (from his father, no less) that this guy was up to no good, despite the warnings he was issued a visa, and, despite his fitting nearly any conceivable profile of a possible Islamist terrorist suicide attacker, he didn’t receive a great deal of scrutiny in Amsterdam.
I gather that today’s challenge in intelligence isn’t getting information it’s overwhelming quantity of information. Too much data can be just as paralyzing as too little. Clearly, there’s got to be some better way of prioritizing and analyzing the data at hand. That won’t be accomplished by the TSA’s absurd new tightening of security. That’s giving the impression that you’re doing something without actually addressing the underlying problems. OTB commenter DC Loser correctly observed that’s the natural reaction of bureaucrats (the self-licking ice cream cone). This is why I opposed the creation of DHS, opposed the transfer of responsibility for security to the TSA in the first place, and support a more approach in which airlines have their incentives aligned properly to improve security in a de-centralized fashion rather than centralizing it into a single, inevitably incompetent federal administration.
The second observation I’d like to make is about DHS head Janet Napolitano’s remark that the security system was working which has received quite a bit of attention in the Right Blogosphere. I believe that her remark exposes a fundamental divide on the subject of dealing with terrorism, those who believe that the way to deal with terrorism is via law enforcement and those who believe that dealing with terrorism is war.
Unless you mean something different by law enforcement than is normally meant in the United States, law enforcement is not preventive in nature but mostly about apprehending perpetrators after the crime has already been committed. Secretary Napolitano’s remarks are completely consistent with viewing terrorism that way. The system did work. They apprehended the guy and are investigating the situation. Mission accomplished.
Now, driven by the political winds, she’s backing away from her earlier statement:
WASHINGTON — Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano conceded Monday that the aviation security system failed when a young man on a watchlist with a U.S. visa in his pocket and a powerful explosive hidden on his body was allowed to board a fight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
The Obama administration has ordered investigations into the two areas of aviation security — how travelers are placed on watch lists and how passengers are screened — as critics questioned how the 23-year-old Nigerian man charged in the airliner attack was allowed to board the Dec. 25 flight.
A day after saying the system worked, Napolitano backtracked, saying her words had been taken out of context.
“Our system did not work in this instance,” she said on NBC’s “Today” show. “No one is happy or satisfied with that. An extensive review is under way.”