On Speeches and (Specious) Security

In his 13-minute speech delivered in the State Dining Room, President Obama promised yesterday that he would “leave no stone unturned in seeking better ways to protect the American people,” especially in light of the “systemic failure across organizations and agencies.” He was, of course, referring to the December 25th underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab–and to the failure of the National Counterterrorism Center in synthesizing and analyzing the intelligence provided on Abdulmutallab prior to his almost-attack aboard Flight 253 to Detroit.

There were some large dots left unconnected, most significantly the fact that Abdulmutallab’s father paid a November visit to the American embassy in Nigeria, warning them that his son was an Islamic extremist and possibly hiding in Yemen. Then, too, there was the rumor of an attack coming from a Nigerian in Yemen, and the knowledge that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was planning a direct attack on America, tentatively from a Yemeni stronghold. Adding to the embarrassment: Abdulmutallab was on the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, watch list, and authorities in Detroit planned to question him; however, a snafu with the misspelling of his name led to him keeping his U.S. Visa and not being put on the “no-fly list.”

So no, Janet Napolitano, the system did not work quite as well as you said it did. But it did work insofar as it made clear how thin the reeds are upon which security stands. It made us consider whether we ought to reassess our policy toward security and intelligence, whether those thin reeds should, in fact, be sufficient basis to place someone on the no-fly list, and what possible repercussions that might have for international business, diplomacy, and security relationships. Not to mention the hundreds of unthreatening people who won’t be able to travel into the United States if the few detailed dots of the underwear bomber become the standard for acceptable intelligence.

The president has made clear that he will make every effort to continue safeguarding American security, but as the White House review shows, there are no guarantees. From the fire hose of data available to the 16 national security agencies, information is meant to filter up to the NCTC according to specificity and strength. While the CIA had a portfolio on Abdulmutallab, they did not turn it over to the NCTC, ostensibly deigning it insignificant. If this sub-sourced information, given to the CIA only a month before the planned attack, is the new standard for sharing, then that’s fine. But there are larger changes that need to be made, in that case: to the NCTC itself, so that it isn’t overwhelmed by the data that is sure to be pushed upward, and to what we consider reasonable response by the CIA to this degree of intel. Either way, the system worked pretty much the way it was supposed to, and Obama has pledged to lower the bar for who gets put on the no-fly list, improve airport screening technology, and assign responsibility for particular intelligence cases to particular officers. But, “there is, of course, no fool-proof solution.” There is no way to stop every terrorist who tries to enter the United States.

In light of that, perhaps the most important part of the president’s speech yesterday was its coda. Yes, in a rare moment of semantic opportunism, and perhaps in response to the former vice president’s critique, he said, “We are at war.  We are at war against al Qaeda, a far-reaching network of violence and hatred that attacked us on 9/11, that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people, and that is plotting to strike us again.  And we will do whatever it takes to defeat them.” But Obama then went on to stress what makes his approach to this war unique: He doesn’t only want to improve our security; He wants to make our security less necessary. He spoke of the American vision, and of his attempted engagement with Muslim communities worldwide. He spoke of diminishing al Qaeda’s capacity to recruit, and of seeking new beginnings to improve the on-the-ground conditions of those Muslims particularly susceptible to the focus and purpose of extremism. Somehow, he turned what could have been an indictment of our national security–and what certainly would have been a call-to-arms under Bush, Jr.–and turned it into an opportunity to push his policy, to underscore the importance of mutual engagement and respect.

As for airport security, the only fool-proof option seems to be that suggested by Michael Desch, over at Notre Dame, and posted on Stephen Walt’s blog at Foreign Policy:

How we can most cost effectively respond to the underwear bomber? I think that I have finally come up with the solution. Now that extraordinary rendition is in retirement, we’ve put all these CIA proprietary airlines out of business. We could just turn over the airlines to them and we’d have absolutely perfect security.

Here’s how: a flight would begin with every passenger stripped and water-boarded. Then they would all be given those orange jumpsuits, blacked out goggles, and adult diapers, which eliminate the need for in-flight service, video entertainment, and bathroom breaks during the flight. Finally, all flights would be to “undisclosed locations” so any terrorist who got through the system would have no idea when to light his or her BVDs on fire.

In addition to the finally achieving absolute airline security, we’d also keep an important part of the defense industrial base in business at the same time. Do you happen to have Janet Napolitano’s email?

As compelling as that sounds, I’m going to go with Obama’s option in this cat-and-mouse game. When even a well-fed, well-funded, and well-supported cat is left insecure, the best choice may be to tame the mouse.

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