President Barack Obama is right. U.S. intelligence could have and should have uncovered the plot to bring down a Detroit-bound passenger jetliner on Christmas Day. The billions spent since 9/11 still have not bought Americans the sort of intelligence apparatus that is both seamless and nimble enough to counter modern-day terrorism. That will require the administration to break down more bureaucratic walls between the nation's security services and better coordinate intelligence with its international partners.
The president's tone Tuesday was appropriately sharp as he declared that the United States "dodged a bullet" when a Nigerian man authorities identified as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried but failed to detonate an explosive device hidden in his underwear as his Northwest Airlines flight with 278 aboard prepared to land in Detroit. Abdulmutallab's father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria the previous month to warn that his son had cut his family ties, disappeared in Yemen and begun to espouse radical Islam. But that was not enough to move the American bureaucracy to suspend the 23-year-old suspect's U.S. visa. Nor was it enough for the National Counterterrorism Center — formed in the aftermath of 9/11 to act as a clearinghouse for intelligence — to do much more than add Abdulmutallab's name to a large, low-level watch list.
The failures were not so much in collecting intelligence as in sharing and analyzing it. The United States was apparently unaware that Abdulmutallab bought his plane ticket in cash and boarded with no checked luggage. It was apparently unaware that Britain had denied him a visa and placed him on a watch list. Obama said he expects a fuller report on the lapses later this week. But there were enough red flags for several agencies to intervene. The watch list proved meaningless, and the counterterror clearinghouse did not act as a backstop to keep a suspect from slipping through the cracks.
Now the government's focus needs to be on improving communications among the nation's intelligence and security services. With 550,000 names on the U.S. watch list, there is no room for turf battles. Officials need to reassess who is on the watch list and the methods for determining who is banned from boarding a flight. Abdulmutallab's moves were documented across three continents. That should have raised enough questions to suspend his visa at least until he was found. The United States also needs to build a more responsive working relationship with other nations. If these lapses in communication occurred between the United States and Britain, what does that say about the security relationship with less friendly countries?
The government announced this week it had added dozens of names to the watch and no-fly lists, and it ordered pat-downs of passengers from 14 countries it considers "high-risk." The administration plans to call for additional security measures later this week, and they are expected to include expanding the use of whole-body imaging machines at airport security checkpoints. The government has a duty to protect the flying public, and there is a demonstrated need for airports worldwide to have the capability to detect weapons that can evade metal detectors and other traditional security measures.
Yet the Obama administration should acknowledge that no machine offers an absolute guarantee of stopping terrorists, and there are serious privacy issues to consider. Running random travelers through the invasive whole-body imaging machines is not productive. But it is reasonable in this battle against terrorism to use these machines on people who fail initial screening or raise reasonable suspicions in other ways — like the Nigerian man who was determined to blow up the plane on Christmas Day.