Foiled Terror Attempt Reveals Loopholes In Homeland Security

A failed Christmas Day terrorist attack aboard a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit has raised alarming questions about the United States’ counter-terrorism apparatus, a systemic failure that even President Obama has acknowledged. Host Michel Martin discusses the incident and what policy changes may come as a result with Clark Kent Ervin, director of the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security program. Ervin is the former Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Every day, there is more information about the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253. And thus far, much of the additional news reflects poorly on U.S. government's security and intelligence apparatus.

Yesterday, President Barack Obama spoke about the, quote, �systemic failures,� unquote, plaguing the nation's ability to identify terrorists and prevent terrorist attacks.

President BARACK OBAMA: When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted upon, as it should have been, so that this extremist boards a plane with dangerous explosives that could have cost nearly 300 lives, a systemic failure has occurred. And I consider that totally unacceptable.

The reviews I've ordered will surely tell us more. But what already is apparent is that there was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security. We need to learn from this episode and act quickly to fix the flaws in our system because our security is at stake and lives are at stake.

MARTIN: Here with us now is Clark Kent Ervin. He is the director of the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security program. Mr. Ervin was the first inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. Before that, he was inspector general at the State Department. He's with us now. Welcome, thank you for joining us. Happy New Year to you.

Mr. CLARK KENT ERVIN (Director of Homeland Security, Aspen Institute): Happy Holidays, Michel.

MARTIN: So you heard what the president said, a mix of human and systemic failures. Which do you give more weight from what you know now?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, I think the president's statement is exactly right, and I think it really is difficult, if not impossible, to apportion blame as between the human and the systemic. Really, as he said, there were failures on both ends.

The two principal failures, of course, were failures in terms of watch list procedures and failures in terms of screening procedures. As far as the watch list is concerned, as I said yesterday in the New York Times piece, it surely comes as surprising and disturbing news to the average American now that, one, that there could be enough information about someone to put that person on a terror watch list and yet that person would not be placed on the smaller no-fly list, barring that person from taking planes when, in this instance, the person complaining about the person was his own father, a respected Nigerian banker.

We now know last night that the father went to the embassy not once but at least twice for face-to-face meetings, talked to at least two agencies, the State Department and the CIA. And this was still not enough to place this person on the no-fly list.

At a minimum, he, the suspect, ought to have been placed on the selectee list, that is, a slightly bigger list than no-fly list - people about whom there are such suspicions that they are subjected to additional scrutiny at the airport. Had that been the case, even surely this device would have been discovered. But as I say, under the circumstances here, I would have barred him from flying altogether.

MARTIN: And I'm curious about that - as a person with experience of both in homeland security and at state, what do you make of that?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, I'm glad you asked about the State Department and you noted my State Department background because, as you say, the State Department has a role to play here. As far as the State Department is concerned, we know now that about a year ago, in 2008, the State Department issued a visa to Mr. Abdulmutallab. And at the time apparently, the State Department didn't know anything about his terrorism connections. So far so good.

But once the State Department learned from his father last month in November about the father's terrorism concerns, his visa ought automatically to have been revoked at that time, and there should have been an alert to all American authorities to be on the look out for this person should he board a plane or some other conveyance for America. That did not happen. That's got to change. And surely, that will be among the recommendations the president will receive when this review is completed.

MARTIN: And what about - I think a lot of people are curious about that. We talked to your old boss Tom Ridge, the former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security yesterday. In a minute I'm going to play a short clip of what he said. But one of the questions I had is, you know, the whole - the database is so large.

Mr. ERVIN: Right.

MARTIN: Can you really scrutinize everybody on the database? And one of the points he made is that, you know, if you and I go to use our credit cards to buy something or let's say we - one of the stores offers us a credit card on the spot, they can instantly input information into a database and figure out whether our credit is worthy or not.

So the question, I think, a lot of people would have is, is the database just too unwieldy. Is there just too much information floating around and there aren't enough people or there isn't an adequate mechanism to evaluate the information we already have.

Mr. ERVIN: Right. Well, there are multiple problems, Michel. One of the problems is what you said that there's just so much information. The particular database we're talking about now is called TIDE - that's an acronym - has about 500,000 names in it. And that's awfully big, needless to say. But also a part of the problem is there's not just one database. There are a number of them. There's a slightly smaller terrorist screening database of people about whom there are more concerns.

The first list that I mentioned is maintained by the Director of National Intelligence. The second list is maintained by the FBI and then, as I said, there are these two other lists maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, a selectee list, people who are subjected to additional scrutiny at airports, about 14,000 people on that list, and then this smaller no-fly list, people who are barred from aviation altogether. And then the State Department has its own list with regard to the visas.

So, you know, one of the issues is shouldn't all these lists at a minimum be able to communicate with each other and perhaps even shouldn't there be one list. And all this has got to be looked at. And here we are all these many years after 9/11, we have not one but two new bureaucracies: the Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence, both of which together were supposed to solve this problem. And yet, obviously the problem persists.

MARTIN: Well, isn't that the whole reason, the whole rationale for the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to streamline information sharing. From your vantage point as the former inspector general, what do you see as the obstacles to that happening?

Mr. ERVIN: Well, you know, it's deja vu altogether again. You know, in the 9/11 Commission report we learned that the CIA had information on at least two of the hijackers. They never passed it on to the State Department. Had they done so, presumably those two hijackers would never have gotten into the country. And if there had been two fewer hijackers, perhaps the plot wouldn't have happened.

Once those hijackers got into the country the CIA didn't share that information with the FBI. Had they done so, perhaps the FBI could have tracked down those two hijackers because they were living under their own names in San Diego. So the same thing is happening here. Part of it, Michel, is turf consciousness. Bureaucracies are bureaucracies, and they are loathe to share with others their information, sometimes even information is not even shared within a particular agency, not to mention across agencies. And we've seen a near miss here.

This is a - this is probably as close as we've come since 9/11 to another 9/11 attack. Now, there was the 2006 liquid bomb plot, multiple jetliners, that was another one. But certainly this is the second attempt. So we've had at least two major wake-up calls here, and we've got to get this right.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Clark Kent Ervin. He's the former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security. He was the first person to serve in the post. Now he's the director of the Homeland Security program at the Aspen Institute.

Looking at this from a totally other direction now - on the blogs and just in sort of conversations of people who think about these issues, the issue of profiling is starting to emerge again. On the one hand, people are saying, you know, though crediting certainly the passengers on this plane with being vigilant, realizing that something was wrong, acting quickly to address the situation, I'm sure everybody agrees that that was the right thing to do.

But now, of course, as new security measures are being implemented, especially on international flights, people are being told they can't have anything in their hands for an hour before they land. And I think all our people are saying, first of all, is that really realistic. I mean, is flying going to become just impossible. I mean, you have young children. Are you - you think about the possibility of having your kids sit still for an hour before they land with nothing in your hands to entertain them.

Mr. ERVIN: Right.

MARTIN: That's scene one. And then scene two, this whole question of who exactly are we supposed to be vigilant about now?

Mr. ERVIN: Exactly.

MARTIN: How does that work in a free society, in a free multiracial society where presumably all people should have a right to move about freely when they have no criminal intent? So, can I ask your thoughts about that.

Mr. ERVIN: Right. Well, it's a good question, Michel. And you're right, I have young children, a three-and-a-half-year-old, I think you do, too. And, you know, I think it's silly, this rule that you can't up for the final hour of a flight because all that means is if you're a terrorist, you'll get up before that hour. So, that's a really silly rule.

What we need to do in addition to fixing this watch list problem that we were talking about earlier is to deploy technology out there that we know can work in detecting this device. There are these machines called whole body imagers. There are two different kinds, and I won't get into that detail, given our time constraints. But basically these machines can see through clothing to spot any anomalies hidden under passengers clothing.

And there are legitimate privacy concerns about that. But it seems to me - I'm a civil libertarian to some degree - those privacy concerns are mitigated now by the fact that we - there's now only a cartoon stick figure, an outline of the body. So, we're not looking at anyone's genitalia or private parts, point one. Two, the person looking at the image is at, so removed from the screening checkpoint. And three, any images obtained cannot be stored. And so it seems to me with those three modifications, we need to deploy these technologies, which are only deployed in limited bases in airports around the country, throughout the country, at all or as close to all 400 airports, as many of the 2,000 plus checkpoints as we have because unless - and until we do that, these kinds of things can continue to get by screeners.

MARTIN: Do you think that the issue of profiling will surface again? How would you address that? And if you don't mind, my pointing out as a man of color yourself, I know that people in the blogosphere...

Mr. ERVIN: Right.

MARTIN: ...who particularly attend to these issues are concerned now that anybody who doesn't speak English is going to be perceived as suspicious.

Mr. ERVIN: Well...

MARTIN: ...on the ground or anybody coming from certain countries.

Mr. ERVIN: I am sensitive to these issues. As you say, I happen to be African-American myself and I am concerned about racial profiling. I guess, I'd say a couple of things about that. One is, we need to understand that terrorists come in all shapes and sizes, all races, all ethnicities. This particular suspect happens to be Nigerian, happens to be black. But, you know, there's Adam Gadahn who is the spokesman or one of the spokesmen for al-Qaida, who is a Caucasian American and of Jewish background.

So, if we focus on a particular phenotype, we're going to be defeating ourselves because al-Qaida knows, whether we admit it or not, we have a stereotype in our minds of what a terrorist looks like. And they are actively recruiting people who don't fit that stereotype, point one. And secondly, it's not what people look like, it's what they do, it's their behavior, that's what we need to focus on. And, you know, as you said earlier, we need to commend the passengers on this flight because they did exactly the right thing. They took action against this man not because he was black, not because he was Nigerian, but because he had apparently an explosive device.

MARTIN: Clark Kent Ervin is the director of the Aspen Institute's Homeland Security Program. He joined us from his home office in Delaware. I thank you so much for speaking to us and happy holidays to you again.

Mr. ERVIN: Very same to you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Just ahead, we check back in with some of the most fascinating people and stories we've covered throughout the year. We visit a woman who's been out of work for a year and trying to keep the faith.

Ms. BOBBIE BRINEGAR: I have a lot of faith and I get up at five o'clock every morning and join a prayer line with some church friends.

MARTIN: And we check back in with an Iranian cartoonist living in exile in Canada. He recently created a Web site to keep the world informed about what's going on in Iran.

That's all coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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