Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Airliner Bomb Plot -- Existing Policies Fail, New Bad Policies Created

The Christmas day airliner bomb plot by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, from Nigerian, trained in Yemen, is a perfect example of a broken system. Every thing should have been in place, from a policy perspective, to have intercepted him before he boarded the plane.

On a Northwest flight from Amsterdam, 20 minutes prior to landing in Detroit, Abdulmutallab tried to ignite a just-assembled-bomb based on PETN. A fellow-flier recognized the activity and pounced on the terrorist.

He was able to smuggle the chemicals inside his underwear, circumventing traditional physical inspection/screen mechanisms. However, there were other things -- flags -- that should have forced the authorities to pull him aside for further investigation:

Flag 1 - he was on a terrorist watch list (not on the no fly list)
Flag 2 - he paid for a one-way ticket with cash
Flag 3 - he had no checked luggage

There is no real issue with any one of these but collectively, they should raise concern.

It has been my experience that these flags are well known and established within the various national homeland security agencies. The problem, like most issues with bureaucracies, is execution. The policies exist, but the execution of the policies is lacking.

What happens next? Over-reaction from governments and airlines. Investigative committees and immediate status reports. Political opportunism. Political spin.

Hearing that the TSA is asking airline passengers to sit in their seat one hour before landing -- no bath room visits, no electronics, no knitting -- is expected. It is unreasonable and will do little if anything to thwart an attack. It is as stupid as forcing people to take their shoes off before passing through security -- all because one terrorist tried to bomb a plane with supplies hidden in his shoes. What happens if someone tries this with materials smuggled in their rectum?

The answers to these issues are not privacy-stripping policies. The answer are solid investigation, risk assessments and policy enforcement. Most of the TSA reactionary policies add delay and costs, but there is no evidence that any of this will make us safer. Government serves itself, not the people. Government will react, showing the people they are doing something, whether it works or not.

The government is always trying to address the last issue -- fighting the last war -- with reactionary solutions. Some things they should do, they will not do because it is not politically correct. For example, on the list of things to track, a person's nationality and religion should be considered as part of a collective. Just because a person is a male Muslim should not force any action, but add this to a long list of other things like past travel records, method of payment, baggage, flight plans, destination (hotel, family, friends), validated purpose, etc. Why we fail to acknowledge that almost every terrorist that has committed terrorist acts against America is an Islamic extremist is beyond me.

So we will have full-body ex-rays and will be forced to hold it for an hour or more prior to landing -- this after the airline feeds and hydrates us for the previous hours. Likewise, any heroic effort like was demonstrated on the Christmas day Northwest Flight 253 will not be allowed, according to the TSA, because you cannot leave your seat prior to landing.

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