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Obama Settles for a Field Goal on National Security

Adrian Moore
January 7, 2010, 7:55pm

If you missed Pres. Obama's speech on the results of the investigation he ordered on attempted Christmas day airplane bombing, read or watch the speech here, read a summary of the investigation report here, and read Obama's "corrective actions" memo here.

First he takes the blame for the failure and he fully admits the system didn't work.

Second, the main changes he promises are:

--better coordination and sharing of information by counter-terrorism agencies.

--better management of the watch lists.

--work with other nations to improve security at their airports.

--agency heads are ordered to review procedures and policies for needed changes.

I say that is a field goal because it scores some points, but it is no touchdown.

There are three main levels to the problems that let an amature terrorist get a bomb on a flight to the US:

1) The intelligence failure to have followed up on leads of an impending attack, to share information, and to have Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab on a watch list.  This is where Pres. Obama's changes are focused. 

2) Airport security policies.  Obama does not even try to score on this, apparently accepting that the current system just needs tweaking.  But the system is fundamentally flawed, as Reason identified back in 2003, and the system needs to focus on risks--risky objects and risky people--not simple repetitive rules that treat all people as equally risky. See our analysis of the problem and proposed risk-based approach here. Lets see less rote process at airports and more actual security work--rigorously applying the watch lists to prevent know risky individuals from getting on flights, and actively looking for behaviors in unlisted travelers that warrant further scrutiny.

3) Accountability for results.  Obama said "I will hold my staff, our agencies and the people in them accountable when they fail to perform their responsibilities at the highest levels."  I hope he lives up to that. To date, each time there has been a major security failing, new rules come out, but no one is held accountable. Each time the Government Accountability Office manages to get most of its fake bombs through the security system, no one's head rolls.  Until the leaders in charge of airport security are held really, seriously, accountable for the system working, they won't rock the boat to do the major overhaul needed.  Until the managers and workers in the TSA system are rewarded for success and punished for failure, rather than for simply obeying procedures like automatons, they will be assembly line workers, not security personnel.

Pres, Obama, please, take this opportunity to change our system to one that actually makes us safer, rather than one of mostly empty procedures that create an illusion of saftey. Until the next attack.


Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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