Yesterday, while driving from Northern to Southern California, I listened to much more talk radio than normal. Three faulty criticisms of the Obama administration were repeated by hosts and callers alike.
First, in the recordings I heard, Secretary Janet Napolitano, of whom I am no fan, said that once the incident took place, the “system worked” insofar as it responded by efficiently distributing word of the attack throughout the transportation system and implementing defensive measures against this particular form of attack. If her claim was actually true, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, this was a good thing and a legitimate accomplishment. As evidenced by 9/11 itself, these terrorists seem to like multiple simultaneous attacks and rapid dissemination of information could have prevented any such further attacks that day. Of course, in her media appearances she was spinning away from the fact that the security clearance system for visas and flying entirely failed, which it had, but would not every administration do exactly this in the immediate aftermath of such an event? Take credit for what was done right while downplaying or remaining mute on what was done wrong, in the interest of reassuring the public and mitigating political harm to the current administration?
Second, the failure to screen the Christmas bomber based on the information his father reported to US officials was sometimes attributed to the Obama administration’s treating the war against Islamic radicals as a domestic law enforcement matter. While I do think the administration is making this mistake, I don’t believe this is a good example; nor is there any reason to think (without more information than has been released so far) that the Bush administration would have handled this information any differently. To reach that conclusion, we would need to know that the Obama administration had changed Bush administration policies concerning these databases. As one Republican congressman I heard interviewed correctly stated, this was a general bureaucratic failure. Of course, such bureaucratic failures are to be expected from large government bureaucracies, which is one reason why the Department of Homeland Security, a proposal eventually supported by the Bush administration, was itself a bad reaction to 9/11. These criticisms of the DHS were made at the time it was proposed. Despite claims to the contrary, the government always reacts to events and never prevents their first occurrence. We can hope that the bureaucracy will now make constructive use of its 550,000 name database in light of this failure.
Third, with regard to “security theater.” As someone who flies between 60 and 100K actual air miles every year, I hate airline screening as much as the next person–though it has gotten much more professional in recent years. And I entirely agree with the many critics who have noted we need to focus on identifying dangerous persons rather than dangerous instrumentalities. But what security does exist seems to have deterred attackers from using prohibited means and forced them to search for ways around rather than through the system. Even the 9/11 attackers used permissible weapons–box cutters–rather then try to sneak prohibited firearms on their flights. And this was pre-TSA, suggesting that the airlines’ much derided private security measures “worked” as intended insofar as use of contraband weapons was effectively deterred and terrorists were forced to find legal instrumentalities with which to accomplish their attacks. (The faulty argument that government agencies would better prevent attacks was what led to DHS.) Regardless of what you think of handguns on airplanes, it was much harder to execute 9/11 with box cutters than with a handgun. The strategy used by attackers worked on 9/11, not because of a failure of screening for weapons–as opposed to screening for unlawful combatants, which certainly did fail–but because crew and passenger response had not yet adjusted to deal with new threat of suicide combatants rather than hijackings. The new terrorist strategy failed on its fourth attempt that very same day when militia members on United #93 learned of the suicidal intentions of their attackers and took aggressive action. Hence, the almost immediate shift by terrorists to shoe bombs which cannot be thwarted as easily by passengers and crew rather than suicide hijackings. So far as I am aware, no terrorist attacks have been committed, or even attempted, using prohibited weapons; nor have any attempts been made with explosive devices using liquids since liquids were banned. These security measures have thereby forced terrorists to use powder explosives hidden in underpants, an apparently a trickier technique to execute. Referring to them as mere “theater” — tempting as it may be — is misleading.
The fact that our declared enemies will look for ways around any screening protocol is perfectly predictable and an argument for focusing on personal screening to identify unlawful combatants before they get on a plane. It is an argument for treating terrorists as unlawful combatants rather than criminal defendants if for no other reason than they can be interrogated for intelligence about future attacks and techniques. It is also an argument for offensively carrying the fight to the enemy rather than solely relying on purely defensive measures to stop terrorist attacks. (In my humble opinion as a citizen rather than as an expert, the fact we were not again attacked on American soil during the Bush administration stemmed from the fear of terrorist organizations and their patron states of President Bush’s reaction to any such attack. If my guess is right, then the Christmas attack shows that fear has now subsided with the change of administrations.)
But the fact that, until they are defeated, our avowed enemies will seek ways around current screening methods does not make these security measures mere “theater.” To the contrary, it presupposes that current screening is working to the extent such screening can ever work. And, again, it was the Bush administration who yielded to political opposition by inadequately focusing on dangerous persons rather than making a show of screening everyone for dangerous instrumentalities.
I am not a airline security expert, but neither are most I heard on the radio yesterday. As a member of the public and frequent flier, I do believe there is much to criticize about current security systems, and especially how government intelligence bureaucracies failed to prevent this bomber from getting a visa well before he attempted to board a plane. But in leveling valid criticisms of the government, I would avoid these three specific critiques.