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Reports Show How Christmas Terrorist Got Onboard

The New York Times reports on massive failures within the intelligence community to collaborate on data. According to the Times, “The National Security Agency four months ago intercepted conversations among leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen discussing a plot to use a Nigerian man for a coming terrorist attack, but American spy agencies later failed to combine the intercepts with other information that might have disrupted last week’s attempted airline bombing.”

This, combined with Abdulmutallab’s father’s warnings to the U.S. government, reveal an intelligence community that, at least in this case, failed to respond to a clear threat against the nation. As such, he was not placed on the no-fly list, or otherwise flagged for additional pat-downs before boarding.

The Times also reports that the U.S. missed several opportunities to stop Abdulmutallab once his plan was in action. “Before a plane can take off for the United States, details on every passenger are forwarded electronically to the Department of Homeland Security. There is also an electronic summary of each passenger’s airline reservation—which in Mr. Abdulmutallab’s case would most likely have included the fact that his ticket had been bought with cash and that he had not checked any bags.

“The Homeland Security Department, with this information, can request that a passenger like Mr. Abdulmutallab get extra scrutiny by airport officials before the plane takes off. But no action was taken, as department officials said they had no reason to believe he presented a threat.

“So Mr. Abdulmutallab, after passing through a metal detector that missed his hidden bomb materials, walked onto the Northwest flight, bound for Detroit.”

The question now becomes: How do you fix the system that, with eight years of practice and billions of dollars invested, can fail so completely? Well, for one thing, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is currently without a leader—nominee Erroll Southers’ nomination has been held up due to political wrangling in Congress. Others are calling for the Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, whose public response to the incident was underwhelming to many, to be replaced.

But while quick and highly visible moves such as these would no doubt placate a nervous populace, it’s clear that the real work must take place behind the scenes. You know all the platitudes: We need an agency that connects the dots, anticipates instead of reacts, and so forth. But to a degree, these cliches are true, as Abdulmutallab’s failed attack shows: We had the information to stop him, we just didn’t use it.

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