The Underwear Bomber

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.”

24 comments… add one
  • Drew Link

    I’ve had several arrows launched my way over at OTB on this subject. But in their zeal to shoot me down both DC Loser and Steven Taylor have completely missed the point. Of course there is an over reaction, and of course the response will be ineffectual. Its the government. (Woudth that they had a similar disdain for public run health care, but I digress.)

    That’s not the issue or the question. At the highest level, the question should be: is this a viable mechanism for blowing up airplanes? The componenets would be: 1) can we detect the explosive with current screening equipment, 2) can the explosive successfully be hidden in clothing or (let your imagination take hold) 3) is there a viable fuse? It appears to be a given that the quantity necessary to bring down a plane can be hidden.

    If the answers are no, yes and yes, the rest is easy, and in my opinion scary. By sheer numbers and simplicity we have a major problem. Recruit some believers. Get a seamstress, buy a ticket, board 10, 30, 100, 500 planes……………and if the believers don’t soil themselves, you’ve got a nightmare.

    If this is a viable explosive mechanism, this is so much simpler and robust a scheme than what 9/11 took.

  • IMO some of the critics are setting the bar far too high for what constitutes an existential threat. You don’t need to bring every plane down. One in 1,000 would be enough.

    Something that hasn’t been sufficiently recognized is that our society is built on trust. If we can’t trust the bank, the cop on the beat, or American Airlines, we’ve got problems.

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think most people advocating a law enforcement model are referring to that 10% or so of law enforcement which is intended to be preventative: patrols, i.d. checks, DUI checkpoints, guards with metal detectors, etc.

    If Obama had been shot, we would be outraged if someone said the security system worked, merely because the shooter had been apprehended (and Obama was still alive because the shooter misfired). We expect security to use intelligence, observation and training to stop the crime before it happens. The question is whether the homeland can afford the type of security afforded the POTUS, both in terms of money and restrictions on liberty.

  • Every day I drive my daughter to school it’s the 405 to the 55 to the 5. I am in infinitely greater danger heading down the on-ramp than I am climbing on a plane. We all are. But because we’re used to it, and because the “enemy” doesn’t have a specific identity, we accept the risk with scarcely a thought.

    I’m overweight — far more likely to kill me than American Airlines. I breathe Los Angeles air. I wash my Ambien down with whiskey. I eat red meat. I heat foods in carcinogenic plastics. Threat is so often a state of mind rather than an objective fact. We shrug off dangers that are statistically more dangerous than terrorism.

    Existential threats should not be mere states of mind. Soviet nukes were an existential threat. An airliner every few years is not. How am I to rationalize driving across town to buy bacon and booze and yet be intimidated by the idea of getting on a plane?

    God knows the Israelis and the Brits and the Spaniards and any number of peoples have suffered far more than we from terrorism, and yet they seem to have weathered it.

  • steve Link

    “Of course there is an over reaction, and of course the response will be ineffectual. Its the government. ”

    I sent an email to Cowen hoping he will post an answer to the question of what the free market response would/should be (he has posted a couple of my questions). Prior to 9/11 the airline industry was in charge of security. We had numerous hijackings. Security did not change. We had Operation Bojinka interrupted when they had planned to blow up planes and not just hijack them. From my POV, it looks as though the market decided that terrorists grabbing planes and harming people was so unlikely, it was not worth increasing security.

    Even now, there is noting stoping them from increasing security on planes. Replace the attendants with police as an example.

    Everyone who is interested should read Golberg and Schneier’s article on how easy it is to get past the TSA.


  • PD, from South v. Maryland to Town of Castle Rock v. Gonzales the Supreme Court has held that the police are under no particular obligation to protect any individual. Their responsibility is to the public at large whatever that may mean. I can’t take much solace from that.

    Michael, the threat I’m talking about is larger than a threat to individuals but a threat to the system itself. Put in hard dollar and sense terms and ignoring our misguided response to the attacks on 9/11 the attacks’ cost was in the trillions. Both politically and pragmatically we had to respond in some fashion.

    My position is not that what we’ve done in reaction to the attacks on 9/11 was the correct reaction or that the TSA’s reaction to this incident has been the right one. My position is that there’s some range of positions between ignoring attacks completely and nuking Mecca and closing our borders in both directions that provides the appropriate response. Just calculating the odds is not sufficient; you’ve got to factor in the cost of a successful attack into the equation, too.

    I think that response should play to our strengths rather than our weaknesses. To my mind that means that it should be de-centralized rather than centralized, for example.

  • Drew Link

    steve –
    I meant to comment on this before. But you now prompt me. Dave hit what I believe is an enlightening Friedmanesque moment when he observed that the airlines are the people who should police security. For who are the parties most interested in maximizing air travel? Maximize safety and customer service? That maximizes profits. Right arm! If that were the dynamic – not government – they would get it right out of (egad!!) economic self interest.

    But then we have the lefties, and government solutions……..with McDonalds style employees…..”protecting” you. Oh, boy.

    Michael –
    First, thank you for coming clean. You’ve previously told us that mean, vindictive insurance companies have denied you health care coverage for no damned good reason. Now, in a different debate it is convenient to you to argue, and you tell us you are a fat, whiskey swilling , carcinogenic ingesting sloth…………who has a hyperlipidemia issue.


  • Mr. Reynolds,

    Regarding you’re comments on the existential things:

    First, you equivocate statistical accidents with intentional murders. Rather sophomoric I think.

    Second “Threat” is not a state of mind. “Threat” is

    1 a statement of an intention to inflict pain, injury, damage, or other hostile action on someone in retribution for something done or not done : members of her family have received death threats.
    • Law a menace of bodily harm, such as may restrain a person’s freedom of action.
    2 a person or thing likely to cause damage or danger : hurricane damage poses a major threat to many coastal communities.
    • [in sing. ] the possibility of trouble, danger, or ruin : the company faces the threat of bankruptcy | thousands of railroad jobs came under threat.

    Paranoia, fear, anxiety – these are states of mind. (Also, grandiosity)

    Third, you equivocate American Airlines with terrorist bombings. “I’m overweight — far more likely to kill me than American Airlines.”

    Fourth, you equivocate national, with personal existential threats.

    You’re too clever by half old boy.

    Finally, there’s little else as silly as comparing nations with such generalizations as “suffered” and “weathered”.

    I’d not have bothered with you, but the moniker you’ve given yourself is contemptible. sideways mencken indeed!

    Uncle Randy

  • Drew:

    And for all we know you have a long family history of cancer. Or undiagnosed diabetes.

    I’m honest here, I’m honest with my insurers, and I was honest when I related their reason for rejecting me: prescription for simvastatin (Zocor.)

    Not quite sure why any of that involves you doing the happy dance. Can you explain?

  • Dave:

    I fail to see what would compel airlines to increase security. As pointed out above: they could do so now, and choose not to. To add security would be to add cost which would place them at a competitive disadvantage.

    We could all sit here all day and come up with examples of corporations behaving stupidly: neglecting customer service, producing defective products, failing to maintain their very brand identity. So why should we assume airlines would take the long view and invest in security? As it is there are airlines skimping on maintenance.

    The car companies fought safety for a long time before government and the insurance companies finally rammed it down their throats. Now they’ve discovered that it’s an advantage, but it wasn’t something they figured out on their own.

    This is one example of why we need a government: because sometimes corporations behave badly or stupidly and do it in ways that don’t just cost their stockholders but kill innocent people.

  • I fail to see what would compel airlines to increase security.

    As long as we elect to indemnify them against risk as we’ve done so far, you’re right. Here’s a start:

    • Impose strict liability on the airlines for losses due to terrorist attack. Right now their liabilities are limited and we’ve even indemnified them against those.
    • Impose criminal penalties against airline executives under the circumstances of loss of life due to terrorist attack on the grounds of reckless indifference.
  • PD Shaw Link

    I agree w/ Michael, that the government has a role here, but not necessarily because business is stupid or greedy. A reasonable approach for a business to take in response to rare, unforeseeable criminal acts of third parties is to buy insurance. The insurance will spread the risk of liability and pay for the attorneys to avoid liability. It’s not clear to me that the air lines had any financial liability for 9/11, though they were ultimately protected from litigation. (Air line employees may be different under worker compensation laws)

    Dave, you may want to make insurance against terrorism void as against public policy if you want airlines to feel pain, but then you essentially run the risk that the air lines will file bankruptcy and it will be the victims that are most hurt from the lack of funds.

    I personally don’t think unleashing the lawyers on our national security system is very helpful.

  • I’m not arguing that government has no role. Of course it has a role. But as I see it government’s role in airline security has to do with borders, visas, and intelligence gathering, not checking passengers’ bags or getting them on to planes.

    For literally decades the airlines demanded, lobbied for, received, and maintained the responsibility for most of what the TSA is doing now. They were right: they’re in the best position to do it and their incentives are aligned better for doing it.

    However, they also believed with the assurance based on experience that they’d be fully indemnified against the losses that they’d incur if they failed. That’s the part I want to get rid of.

    There’s also something I don’t think you’re taking into account. Unless the airlines take security seriously, all other measures are in vain. The airlines are the weak link, not passengers. Airline personnel don’t go through all of the screening every time they go into the departure area that ordinary passengers do. How do you get the airlines to take security seriously if they’re indemnified against every risk that terrorism poses to them?

  • Dave:

    There’s a point where I often find myself in disagreement with you. I think you are the least interested (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) analyst around, I think you are scrupulous in attempting to maintain a logical and objective perspective.

    But I think sometimes you fall into the trap of thinking that other people are like you, that they will carefully weigh pros and cons, balance moral priorities, and arrive at rational conclusions. But they don’t. And they never will.

    Nor will any system — government or market — ever behave rationally because human beings aren’t rational. They aren’t even very good at being self-interested in any long-term way. Part of the reason we are in such straits is that sober, sensible men at Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s decided to slap a triple A rating on what might as well have been stacks of Confederate currency. Was that good for their companies right then? Maybe. Good for their companies long term? Not so much. But like most people they did the stupid and easy thing for a short-term advantage.

    The government cannot indemnify an airline, let’s say Delta because I don’t like them much, from a catastrophic loss of public confidence if their security were shown to be significantly worse and they started losing planes. Nevertheless, airlines, left to their own devices, would absolutely skimp on security. They do it with maintenance right now. They do it with pilot pay and work hours right now.

    All it takes is a CEO determined to clean-up on his stock options, and some weasel from the accounting department armed with a flow chart.

    I’m not willing to place my faith in CEOs. They are just men with needs and desires and egos and blind spots and the free market does not compensate for those weaknesses, rather it often rewards them in the short term, and offers an escape hatch through bankruptcy if they fail. I won’t trust my life to a guy who profits from risking my life.

  • Drew Link

    Michael –

    I guess the cyber-airwaves don’t always convey the intent. It was intentional snark, simply designed to send a (good natured) zinger because of the juxtaposition of your admittedly unhealthy personal vices against your complaints about your hyperlipidemia related insurance problems. No grave dancing. Let’s see if we can get this straight once and for all.

    I think there is an alternative solution to the problems you cite, other than a devastating takeover of the US Health Care System by the Dept of Motor Vehicles………or the TSA.

    I have a hyperlipidemia issue that would make you cringe. Total cholesterol over 600. Tri-g’s over 500. Our point of departure seems to be that in my worldview there ought to be private, ultra-high risk insurance pools. (Ever hear of Loyd’s?) This is very doable.

    By most accounts I should have been dead a decade ago. (Don’t you start wishin’, now.) But I’m not. And neither is, say, comedian Dana Carvey who has numbers worse than mine. So it should be possible to put together high premium/high risk insurance pools. I’d willingly pay the freight and quietly bitch that life ain’t fair; but then everyone has their own problems. You, on the other hand, as I understand it, would willingly throw your personal misfortune onto the general public, keeping your premiums low, and to and including throwing a wonderful health care system to the dogs to achieve your personal objectives. I just don’t see the world that way. Once every individual with a grievance makes it a public grievance we are effed. The strange thing is, you and I should be brothers in arms, focused on the insurance reform I cite. The shorter version of this is: you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water…………based on personal self interest.

  • Drew Link

    “I’m not willing to place my faith in CEOs. They are just men with needs and desires and egos and blind spots and the free market does not compensate for those weaknesses, rather it often rewards them in the short term, and offers an escape hatch through bankruptcy if they fail. I won’t trust my life to a guy who profits from risking my life.”

    Michael –

    CEO’s fly, too. They don’t want to die.

    I fly perhaps 30 – 40 times a year. I’ve witnessed the TSA up front and personal. Are you telling me you trust THEM!!

  • Drew:

    Here’s the problem with that reasoning: I paid for health insurance from my early 30’s onward. In today’s dollars let’s call it 120k in premiums. (Very rough numbers, obviously, today’s dollars, yada yada). During that time I’ve consumed maybe 10,000 in pay-outs, max — cheap prescription meds, stabbed myself in the thumb once, slipped on ice once and broke a tooth.

    So the insurers are in the black by, say, $110,000. Now, having pocketed all that money, having told me I was sharing the risk, they want to keep me from buying insurance. Because now there might be actual risk.

    Nice trick.

    I was in the pool and shared the risk with all the other people in the pool. Now they want me out of the pool. Because it would mean charging you more? No. Because they want their stock price to rise.

    I’m not complaining about price. Tell you the truth, I don’t actually know what I’m paying right now. But I object to the fast-shuffle. The idea of insurance is shared risk. I shared the risk. I subsidized all the aged stroke victims with my youthful premiums. Now when I’m moving to greater risk, they say no.

    Interestingly they’re happy to have me pay them premiums for my 12 and 10 year-olds, and my wife since she won’t be getting pregnant (barring a miracle that will occasion a serious conversation with my urologist.) So, no problem having my family “share risk” so long as none of that risk is on the insurer’s end.

    It’s as if I told you I’d insure your car — but only until you reached driving age. Or a soldier agreeing to defend the country only until war is declared. It’s dishonest. In effect if not in law it’s fraud.

    I think a high-risk policy is a great idea for those of us who can afford it. But I want to be credited for the premiums the industry took from me under false pretenses.

  • Drew:

    Re: flying. I don’t trust government but I also don’t trust business. It’s one more check and balance: big government can watch big business, and big business can bribe government.

  • The facts of who knew what when are coming out fast now. It’s an embarrassment for Obama but his administration is doing their best to blame Bush.

  • AST Link

    Dave makes an important point. Both Napolitano, in her first statement, and her critics are right. The problem is that we expect our system to intercept information and prevent terrorist attacks from occurring, but legalistic judges and activists have argued that such a function is inherently unconstitutional. I consider that an absurdity, but we have elected a representative of that argument President. Why else would he declare the phrase “war on terror” to be out of favor in his administration? Basically, we have accepted John Kerry’s position that these things are a matter for law enforcement, with the proviso that America is not authorized to police the world.

    The system worked as the left intends it to, in accordance with the philosophies of the ACLU and political correctness which place sensitivity, and the penumbral right of privacy ahead of the right to life, while applying our due process requirements to people who are willing to die in order to destroy them.

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