In remarks yesterday, President Obama offered his sharpest criticism yet of the systemic breakdowns that led to the attempted Christmas Day attack two weeks ago. Obama said the U.S. had intelligence that, if connected, would have alerted the nation to the attack. But intelligence failed to “connect the dots,” as Obama said, meaning Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was not placed on a no-fly list, was not flagged for additional screening, and therefore was able to carry out his attack.
“We dodged a bullet, but just barely,” Obama told his security team. “It was averted by brave individuals not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable.”
For travelers, there’s a lot to digest here. Obviously the behind-the-scenes failure is a shock that will reverberate through our collective psyche for some time. But the incident is also a wake-up call, a signal that whatever our intelligence community is doing needs to be improved. And while Obama made a point to preempt any finger-pointing, he did say that failures will not be tolerated.
Obama was vague in his plans for reforming the intelligence process, but he did single out the watch-list system as an area needing improvement. “The bottom line is this,” Obama said. “The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack, but our intelligence community failed to connect those dots which would have placed the suspect on the no-fly list.” And already the government has lowered the threshold for putting individuals on the no-fly or watch lists, and for revoking visas. According to CNN, the “new criteria for information collected on possible terrorists would make it easier to ban them from U.S.-bound flights, [and] If the new criteria had been in place before Christmas, Abdulmutallab would have been added to the no-fly list.” USA Today reports that “dozens” of individuals on the watch list have already been transferred to the no-fly list.
Obama also said there will be additional airport screening and more scrutiny of visas, and said more details would be revealed soon. The government already announced increased security procedures for individuals from or flying through 14 nations.
Here’s my take on all this: We were lucky on Christmas. The president clearly realizes that, and I’m glad to see him targeting the intelligence failures that allowed the attack to happen, rather than focusing on security measures at the airport. Body scanners, metal detectors, pat-downs, and air marshals are the last line of defense. The real security work happens far from our nation’s (and the world’s) airports, through the gathering of intelligence and disruption of terrorist activities. And in that arena, there is no room for error—it’s a pass or fail situation. Here we had a failure, though fortunately not a tragic one, and my hope is the lessons learned will lead to a more effective intelligence system.
Readers, with all these security changes going on, how are you feeling about flying these days? Did the Christmas attack make you rethink any travel plans?