Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Who Is Responsible for al-Qaeda's Attack?

The recent attempted terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound flight has served as ample fodder for attacks on the Obama administration and the TSA. While there are grounds for criticism, the knee-jerk reaction to begin the blame-game, alongside the TSA’s predictable reactionary response, needs to be evaluated in a more rational light.

Without going too far out on a limb, the administration does need some defending. Critics on the right, and even the left, have been lambasting the administration’s snafu. Bloggers, such as Karl DeVries at The Bootleg Press, have (tentatively) called for Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s sacking. Other critics  have demanded explanations for why the terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was not on the no-fly list.

The problem is that in American political culture, the impetuous urge to find a scapegoat ubiquitously overrides true insight into a potential (or actual) disaster. When dealing with issues like security, particularly when threats come from disparate sources, there is always some probability that the ‘bad’ event will occur. No matter how secure a system is, it will never be foolproof.  If a system is 99.99% perfect it means that 1 in 10,000 times the law of averages dictates that the bad guy will get through.  This is especially true when having to weigh tradeoffs between security and issues such as efficiency and personal liberty. An extremely cumbersome yet vastly more secure process could be designed (Maybe have everyone disrobe, wear TSA issued jumpsuits, and be forbidden to have any personal effects on planes); however, the costs in terms of money, time, and personal freedoms would most likely outweigh the added security.  For instance, it is absurd to demand that a single phone call from an individual’s father should warrant inclusion on a no-fly list. Such a precedent would overburden the system with meaningless names added to the list. [And, it might prompt fathers of rebellious teenagers across the globe to literally ‘ground’ their children.]  Furthermore, such an inane system would still fail to be foolproof as some committed terrorist would inevitably find a way to beat it.

Likewise, the TSA has clamped down on security in the most arbitrary and ineffectual way.  For instance pilots are now allowed (and have) to prevent passengers from keeping anything in their laps during the last hour of flight.  It is not clear how keeping a Grandma from the Midwest from reading her copy of Going Rogue during the last hour of flight, is going to stop the next Abdulmutallab from blowing up a plane one and half hours before arrival.

The problem is not the current system, per se.  Potential terrorists will inevitably find new and ingenious ways to breach our systems in the never ending game of cat and mouse. We should continue to monitor their methods and tactics and respond by altering our strategies.  However, the unavoidable infiltration does not necessarily mean the system has failed.  What it means is that the laws of probability have finally caught up to us.  Instead of rashly throwing the baby out with the bathwater, mistakes like this need to be studied, understood, and used to incrementally alter the system. The costs of proposed changes need to be carefully understood and weighed against the perceived benefits.

More importantly, we have to dampen our urge to see heads roll. The fact is that the TSA is our defensive force. They will never be the ones to win this war for America. Their successes will be largely unheralded, while their failures painfully public. If every time a mishap occurs we reflexively burden ourselves with arbitrary restrictions and decapitate our leadership, we only raise the costs to the American people without actually addressing the source of the problem.

The real war is in the offense; America needs to stop these young, disillusioned men from becoming Allah’s warriors. The failed foreign policy that has yet to reap the grandiloquently stated rewards is where the Obama administration deserves its criticism.  Regardless of who is on duty – whether Napolitano or her successor, Obama or the Republican President that follows him – no American airline will be one-hundred percent safe when there are still young Muslim’s willing to take their own lives to satiate their hatred of the West. The culture of scapegoating is futile. Let’s focus on the real problems.


  1. Josh--

    I agree that in a free society we will be at risk from time to time; this is a reality Israelis live by, though curiously, they're able to clamp down on airline security all the same ...

    This episode highlights a few troubling truths: one, it's clear that the "overhaul" of airline security since 9/11 has been painfully inadequate. That the suspect got on an international flight headed to the United States with his record and background is outrageous, and I think Americans have every right to be furious (though not the right to limit their criticism to strictly the Obama administration, as it's also clear that for all his national-security swagger, not nearly enough progress was made on this front by the Bush administration after 9/11).

    The next logical question is: if it's this easy, why doesn't it happen more often? Or better yet: is this the best Al Qaeda can do? This guy was not exactly a Muslim super soldier: he was a trust fund baby with daddy issues, and obviously incompetent.

    How he became radicalized is what's troubling, and as you referenced, the real issue in this fight.

    What does this mean for the War on Terror? Joe Lieberman quoted a friend over the weekend on "Fox News Sunday": "Yesterday's war was Iraq, today's war is Afghanistan, tomorrow's war is with Yemen." Now, the United States isn't invading Yemen any time soon — and Lieberman's grasp on national security issues is still as daft as ever — but it's clear that Al Qaeda is moving on to different theaters where we will have to engage them (precisely the argument for drawing down from Afghanistan, but never mind).

    Obama has his hands full responding to this near-catastrophe. As for firing Napolitano, I'm not suggesting that it's a great strategic move, but one that offers political tactical advantages: it allows him to tap into the national rage at this breakdown in our anti-terrorism measures, while punishing Napolitano for her obtuse statement (who or what pushed that talking point into her head?). All of this is cosmetic, of course, but that was the point raised by Sullivan that I thought was intriguing: such glad-handling of mistakes like these is precisely what infuriated people about Bush, and helped sink the GOP in 2008.

    One apparent bonus of all this rabble: anything that prevents midwestern grandmothers from reading "Going Rogue" is all right by me.

    Thanks for reading and commenting on Bootleg.


  2. Karl~

    I think we're largely on the same page. I do have a question for you though. You say that it is outrageous that the suspect (if we can call him that- but yes technically innocent until proven guilty) was allowed to fly "with his record and background". What about his background necessarily demanded being on the no-fly list? From all that I have heard the only direct historical record is a phone call form his father. I'm not sure that is sufficient to place someone on a no-fly list. Maybe it is sufficient to warrant investigation but with the lack of manpower and the sheer volume of such one-hit isolated incidents within the intelligence network it is questionable if following up on these is feasible. If Congress wants to throw money at this by creating a more integrated system and hiring more investigators I'll jump on the bandwagon. Again, how many names are in the network based on one single call? How many of them are meaninglsess?

    I think your second question is the real kicker. And, to be honest it has baffled me. Maybe its logistical or financial. Al-Qaeda might see more returns by attacking softer targets in the Middle East. I'm just as surprised as you that America hasn't seen the random attacks that are so prevelant in Israel.

    The point, though, that I was trying to make is a criticism of the political culture that makes it politically tactical for Obama (or any politician) to let heads roll. I'm not sure how to rid our culture of this mentality, but other than assuage rage and possibly help maintain his own credibility, it does not accomplish much of anything. I wish we had a more issue based political culture that worked to find solutions to a problem that clearly crosses the aisle rather than pointing fingers.

    Thanks for reading.


  3. Why do you assume a Republican President will follow Obama's term(s)

  4. To be honest, no real reason for writing that. It was just a throw away comment regarding my disappointment with the current administration. That being said, depending on who the Republicans nominate I think there is enough discontent with Obama to give the Republicans a good chance in 2012. I think he has failed to live up to what many expected of him. He has proven to be an excellent campaigner and great orator, but has little in the way of substance that appeals to America. I think he will find it difficult to bring out the new voters that so fervently supported him last year. America is largely a center-right nation and Obama's record and agenda has been more left-leaning than most post-war Democrat Presidents. Bottom line - I do believe there are a lot of promising reasons for a Republican win in 2012. [Sarah Palin, though, is not one of them. She may very well galvanize that support for Obama that a less inciteful candidate - Romney, Huckabee, etc. - would not.]

    Thanks for reading.

  5. I think Josh has got it mostly right.....as in most "operational/real-life" issues, making major changes to demonstrate that "I'm in charge" only discourages the long/hardworking security/law-enforcement personnel who have the day to day knowledge of what goes on and know where the loopholes in our net are.

    We need to let the people who understand the risks and dangers figure out what options there are, and to then evaluate them in the light of the economics and feasibility of their implementation....and then make hard decisions.

    We will never be perfect, we will never fix all the problems by using the lowest cost solution.....and there will always be those who will say "I could have done it better".

    But having made the hard decisions (and I don't know if the authorities have done that or not), our officials need to let us know what risks will still be left for us to assume as individuals of this nation. This is how you spread and share the load for maintaining our democracy....this is how you bring a nation to understand that enforcement and security are a shared burden and not something that you can assign to an agency or a group or a task force and assume it's "done".

    The old phrase "we must all hang together or we will all hang separately" comes to mind. America has been able to bear the burdens of freedom when it has been told what those burdens are.

  6. Bob~

    I'm not sure I could have said it better myself. It is unfortunate that people find it so easy to think in absolutes - 100% fail or 100% success. I think your added point about informing America of the burdens is an important aspect that I didn't really address. The sad thing is that our political culture (and legal culture. see doctors who make mistakes) discourages individuals from taking responsibility or even admiting that something was a calculated but reasonable risk.

    I do have to ask you. You say I "got it mostly right" but didn't really say where I got it wrong. I'm interested to see where you think this.

    Thanks for your insights.


  7. Josh--

    Maureen Dowd's column today nicely sums up his rap sheet:

    "If we can’t catch a Nigerian with a powerful explosive powder in his oddly feminine-looking underpants and a syringe full of acid, a man whose own father had alerted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, a traveler whose ticket was paid for in cash and who didn’t check bags, whose visa renewal had been denied by the British, who had studied Arabic in Al Qaeda sanctuary Yemen, whose name was on a counterterrorism watch list, who can we catch?"

    (There is also an unconfirmed report that the suspect boarded the plane without a passport, though I imagine the likelihood of that to be somewhat dubious.)

    As for Napolitano, I don't think she should resign over this, though if the would-be bomber had succeeded, her head would be on a platter right now. (Clive Crook of The Atlantic also points out that if she resigned, Team Obama would have to send a successor through the confirmation process -- as nightmarish a political minefield as there is right now after last week.)

    Yes, partisan politics are unfortunate, but such is the nature of the beast: for their part, Peter King and Pete Hoekstra are milking this moment for all the political capital they can gain, and our disgraced former vice president, once again, is trailblazing a new brand of political rancor over the issue of national security (and the covering-up of his own mistakes).

    As for the succession of a Republican president, as I've written before, it's too early to get a feel for that, but that's another discussion for another day, I suppose. What's most unfortunate is how episodes like Flight 253 are precisely the ones that today's GOP seizes upon and politicizes, accusing the opposition party of treachery and cowardice. I don't seem to recall such a discussion taking place after 9/11 and the shoe bomber, despite being colossal breaches of national security, but then again, national defense is strictly a one-party issue in this country, a tilted debate of whose going to best perpetuate the fantasy of keeping us "safe" against an enemy that is willing to detonate explosives shoved into the most private of human crevices.

    My latest post excerpts an excellent article in the Toronto Star, highlighting how they do the business of airline security in Israel (and provides the blueprint that our national security apparatus should be furiously copying down by now). I highly recommend you read the article, and imagine you'll enjoy it very much.


  8. Eight years of incompetence and fostering hatred against the US. Not yet even one year of trying to dig the US out of the moral, financial mess we were left in that has almost destroyed our country. We are too much the instant gratification generation. Too fast to repeat misinformation as fact just to hear ourselves talk -- without actually doing our homework, owning up to our problems and joining together to do something positive for this country. There are plenty of scary people right here in the good ol' US of A who need some reigning in as well.

  9. Karl~

    Well let's do it this way. Let's go back 4 years and say Bush steps up to the podium and says "In order to protect America we are going to put indivudals on no-fly lists and perform rigorous searches on individuals who exhibit the following characteristics: (1) pay for tickets in cash (2) don't check bags (3) were denied a visa (4) studied Arabic and (5) have one phone call made to some authority indicating they may have terrorist inclinations." Can you imagine the uproar that would have occured? The ACLU would have had a field day. Why? Because those characteristics can be quite prevelant in non-terrorists as well. I mean you don't even have a direct connection to al-Qaeda in there. Just because Dowd calls Yemen an al-Qaeda sanctuary (which it is) doesn't mean that everyone who studied Arabic is a terrorist. Do you realize how many people have studied Arabic in hostile Muslim countries?

    The point is we can't have it both ways. Its always easy to point fingers when a situation ends up differently than expected (flying Imams?) but it is inevitable that we are going to either miss some bad guys or catch some good guys. Thats the nature of the beast.


    I do agree with your argument - although not the first sentence. Bush made plenty of mistakes but I think he largely got it right. I think your assessment speaks to why he was (and is) so heavily criticized. The instant gratification is precisely why we are seeing waning support for the War in Afghanistan that was deemed so necessary and proper by America a few years ago. American's want their action heros to swoop in, blow up a few buildings, and save the world in the two hours that it takes to watch a summer blockbuster and can't stomach the long-haul where things actually get done. The real world isn't neat and tidy and sometimes the moral path is ugly.

    Thanks for writing.



"Reading makes a full man, meditation a profound man, discourse a clear man." - Benjamin Franklin

Please leave comments!