There will be much written about Flight 253 - some of it a chronology of facts; some of it a search to attach or deflect blame; much of it political. In my perspective, there are two questions - is the management right? and does leftist ideology get in the way of common sense security measures?
1. Do we have the right management in place? The Department of Homeland Security is a difficult job, even in a conservative administration. By most accounts, the 180,000 person department went through consolidation pains under the politically capable Tom Ridge, and got its act together under the more managerial Michael Chertoff. Somewhere in the murk between Janet Napolitano's idiotic "the system worked" and the apologists like Richard Clark who feel that she is doing a great job (like Katrina's "Brownie"), lie serious management questions. Obama has had a year to work on it, so it is a bit lame to talk of Bush's procedures which they inherited.
- If the transportation Security Administration is so important, why did the Obama administration wait until September to nominate Erroll Southers (an apparently well-qualified former FBI agent) to lead the TSA? The Bush administration created a non-union TSA, but gave the director the authority to allow union elections - a likely prospect in any Democratic administration for the 50,000 federal employees, but one that has caused Senator DeMint to hold the nomination pending a debate on the merits - a debate that will probably not ever happen. .
- Is there a system in place to consolidate all of the known intelligence, review it continuously, and take action on questionable actors - arrests; extra screenings; review of visas; more extensive monitoring. If not, is it because of practical considerations (limitations of data base management capabilities), or concern for civil liberties? With Oracle's data base expertise and Google's magic, why is there a problem in sorting the data? With American Muslims attacking military facilities and traveling to Somalia and Pakistan to blow themselves up, it is obvious that the question isn't just about boarding airplanes.
- Are there regular brainstorming sessions and exercises to stay ahead of the evolving terrorist threat? It is good to keep some of the procedures vague - witness the potential damage from the December 8 publication of airline screening procedures on the Internet. Hopefully, the Intelligence committees will have private inquiries into such questions as why there were apparently still no air marshals on the same Amsterdam to Detroit flight two days after the attempted bombing incident, and why the authorities in Amsterdam had instructions not to use body scans on passengers bound for the United States.
The senior management responsibility is to make sure that the proper processes and people are in place, and then to periodically test them. Bad managers do nothing (Katrina); mediocre managers thrash around after problems (current); good managers use profound understanding to prevent problems. Obama recently gave himself a B + for his first year in office; he needs a mulligan.
2. Does President Obama get it? His three days of silence in Hawaii while he deferred to Secretary Napolitano is eerily similar to President Bush's reading "The Pet Goat" to second graders during 9/11. When he eventually referred to the "alleged" bombing attempt and called the bomber an "isolated individual", he obviously didn't have his normal well-tuned PR voice.
But, this incident should not be viewed in isolation. Like the pending trial of KSM in New York, this is treated as a criminal rather than military offense. This bomber was arrested and charged with the crime of threatening an airliner - thus getting a lawyer, and shutting down his discussion of his Yemeni contacts - who were they; where did he get the materials; what other targets were considered; why did he pick Amsterdam? Presumably he will be able to see all of the evidence against him and have the right to challenge any witnesses.
Interestingly, Dawn Johnsen, Obama's stalled nominee for Director of the Office of Legal Council in the Justice Department would have a big part in the administration's policies on interrogation and prosecution, but enough senators have opposed her for extreme national security and abortion views to deny her the position. Assuming that her name is not resubmitted, Obama has the opportunity to select someone who clearly distinguishes between criminals (entitled to US civil trial rights) and unlawful combatants (entitled only to limited Geneva Convention rights on treatment; and subject to indefinite detention). We'll see.
A narrow criticism of the CIA and the National Counter Terrorism Center will not be enough - although they are appropriate and easy targets. Congress and the public should hold Obama to his outraged call for accountability.
This week's video is an interview with Parker Griffith, the Congressman (and oncologist) from Alabama who changed party registration from Democrat to Republican this week. Hopefully, his logic will have broader acceptance.
And for those who want one more "2009 in Review", Dave Barry's column is the funniest ever.
bill bowen - 1/1/10