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A Times Editorial

An ominous security failure

It is a miracle no one was killed Christmas Day when authorities say a Nigerian student attempted but failed to blow up an overseas flight as it landed in Detroit. The potential disaster, narrowly averted, grew more ominous Monday when Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility as retaliation for U.S. airstrikes in Yemen. The episode revealed an aviation security system that failed miserably, both here and abroad. American taxpayers have spent billions of dollars, and the flying public inconvenienced for years, for a safety net that eight years after 9/11 should be enough to keep red flags like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from freely boarding a commercial aircraft.

Abdulmutallab allegedly tried to detonate an explosive device as the Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam prepared to land Friday. Authorities said the detonator failed, causing the device to smoke and spark, and credited fast-thinking crew and passengers for extinguishing the fire and subduing the suspect. Abdulmutallab was charged in federal court with attempting to detonate a two-part device containing the high explosive PETN. Authorities believe the malfunction saved the lives of all 278 on the plane.

The first question to answer is why Abdulmutallab was aboard. His father, a prominent Nigerian banker and former government official, had alerted Nigerian and American authorities that his son had developed radical views and had gone missing. His father had also sought foreign security services for help in finding his son and returning him home. The plea landed Abdulmutallab on a low-level watch list, but the United States did not revoke his visa or ban him from flights.

Given his father's standing and the detail and seriousness of his concerns, Washington should have placed Abdulmutallab on a no-fly list and suspended his visa, at least until authorities located and interviewed him. The British government rejected Abdulmutallab's visa application in May after finding he planned to attend a nonaccredited school. That automatically put him on a U.K. watch list. Britain's home secretary said U.S. authorities should have been informed. Yet the United States went no further than to add Abdulmutallab to the half-million names on a low-level watch list, and to mark him for a fuller investigation were he to ever reapply for a visa.

The United States needs to revamp its watch lists. If Abdulmutallab did not merit scrutiny, even after his father sought out U.S. diplomatic assistance, what does that say about the intelligence on tens if not hundreds of thousands of others on U.S. databases? Then there is the communication and coordination between various countries' security services. Abdulmutallab flew from Lagos to Amsterdam to Detroit, paying for his ticket in cash and flying without checked luggage. These should have been red flags for any security service, let alone those already alerted to Abdulmutallab as a potential threat.

Janet Napolitano has a lot to learn about her job as secretary of homeland security if her first reaction, as she expressed it Sunday, was that the incident proved the nation's aviation security system works. Napolitano was right to reverse that ridiculous claim Monday, and she needs to keep an open mind in carrying out President Barack Obama's order for a top-down look at security policies. A flying public browbeaten from taking mouthwash into the passenger cabin should at least have the confidence that a seatmate is not concealing a chemical bomb — whether the flight originated at home or overseas.

Terrorists will continue targeting commercial carriers so long as holes exist in the safety net. As the Christmas Day scare shows, the nation has work to do, and it needs to vastly improve its working relationship with countries across the globe.

An ominous security failure 12/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 28, 2009 6:26pm]
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