Flt 253: Who's Really to Blame?

The news is out that tomorrow the Obama administration will release an unclassified version of the Flt 253 review ordered by the President.  This is good news, although whether the document will really prove useful will depend to a large extent on how severely the classified version is redacted to make it suitable for unclassified release.  Here are a few thoughts in advance of the report being released.

First of all, much of the discussion thus far has centered on the ‘intelligence failure’ — specifically the failure to connect the dots between the electronic eavesdropping info from Yemen about an unnamed person referred to by Al Qaeda operatives as “the Nigerian” and the warnings from the father of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab that his son had gone to Yemen and become radicalized, and that the father feared he was preparing to carry out actions against  America.  There was also a warning from British intelligence in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was included in a dossier of British residents who had been confirmed to be in touch with extremists.    Okay, we get that, and it’s clear that on that level there was a major failure and pinning down where and how that failure happened will be a key objective in any analysis.  Did the CIA properly forward the information to the National Counter Terrorism Center with sufficient detail and “red flags” to cause it to have the impact at NCTC?  Did NCTC process the information properly and diseeminate it where it needed to be disseminated?  Who, exactly, was in possession of both pieces of information and failed to put them together?

But aside from that, there is the matter of physical security at the airport.  Obviously, the best way to interdict an attack is to gather the intelligence in advance, put the pieces together, and make sure that the individual under suspicion has his visa revoked and is put on the no-fly list.  Those are all items that are firmly within the control of the United States Government, and in this case it’s clear that that the USG failed.

But that still leaves the airport security set of issues that have not been talked about as much — but which are in some ways more problematic than the failure of the intelligence community.  Because regardless of whether of the the intelligence analysts were able to put together the pieces and, having done that, get the would-be bomber banned from flying into the US — there is still the matter of how the last line of defense–airport security–performed.  Let’s review the facts that were available to those involved at the airports:

  • Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab bought a one way ticket from Nigeria (a red flag country) to the US and paid cash — a little over $2,800.  That’s red flag number one that should have automatically brought him a higher level of scrutiny both in Nigeria and in Amsterdam.
  • He also bought a one way ticket — also unusual and reason for concern.
  • He also checked no bags.

The very sad aspect of this is that this is exactly the same profile — right down to the use of PETN explosives–as Richard Reid, the infamous shoe bomber.  So in terms of recognizing the profile of a possible attacker, these three points should have set off alarms and they didn’t.   So who dropped the ball on recognizing the signs that this was a high risk passenger? We can presume he originally checked in in Nigeria and it’s not clear what airline checked him in.  (If anyone has seen an article specifying what airline took Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from Nigeria to Amsterdam, please let me know in a comment as I haven’t been able to find reference to that piece of information).   Presumably then, in Amsterdam, he went through another round of security but it’s unclear whether that would have been more than just passing through a metal detector.  In other words, would this second round of security checks have picked up the fact that he was on a one way ticket; that he was traveling without checked bags, and that he had paid cash.  Certainly the information that he had no checked bags and was on a one way ticket would have  been available at the checkpoint — i.e. the baggage claim tickets would have been attached to the boarding pass or envelope and lack of same could have been noted by an alert guard trained to look for that.  Similarly, the fact that he was on a one way ticket could possibly have been noticed.  But what is unclear is whether the (TSA trained) guards in Amsterdam had been in fact trained to look for these items–or were they simply looking for weapons and nothing more?  What was TSA’s role in Amsterdam (we know there is a TSA presence there, but it’s unclear, at least to me,  how they interface with the security checkpoint operation).   What opportunity did Delta/Northwest — an American carrier– have to pick up on information that should have been passed along.  I.e. would they have been aware of the one-way ticket purchase, the use of cash, and the absence of checked bags?  And if so, should they have flagged the passenger to security?

One thing for certain is that even allowing for the fact that intelligence is a difficult business and there are hundreds of successes we never hear about — and keeping in mind that it only takes one failure to cause an uproar– this still was a horrendous unforgivable  screwup, and all Americans have a right to expect better performance from all elements involved in protecting the country from this type of attack.  I get the impression that Obama is serious when he looks into something like this; that he is asking the hard questions and that he will get a good report.  I’m not so sure that he will hold accountable parties truly accountable.  I think it’s naive to try to pin all this on Janet Napolitano, even if she did make absurd remarks in the immediate aftermath of the event.  And I don’t think the CIA is going to end up taking the blame unless it turns out they really didn’t pass the info along properly.  I thnk the more likely doorstep where the intelligence failure aspect gets laid is at NCTC, whose head, Michael Leiter, is a Bush era appointee.  It could also go higher, to DNI Dennis Blair, but I doubt it. But some form of meaningful accountability must take place.  That’s the bottom line.

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