Insecure About Homeland Security

The Washington Post has an interesting, and troubling, story about the problems at the Department of Homeland Security.  According to the article, the agency is faced with tremendously low morale, high employee turnover, and a toxic bureaucratic environment.

The DHS was created after 9/11 and was supposed to unite a host of separate agencies that had some security role.  Its constituent agencies include the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  Coordinating the different cultures and practices of such diverse agencies would be a challenge, and the Post piece indicates that the DHS has made a hash of it, creating a highly bureaucratic environment that frustrates employees and managers.

A dysfunctional, overly bureaucratic federal agency — who could imagine such a thing?  It may be the norm, but in the case of the DHS the constant turnover, unfilled positions, and bureaucratic gamesmanship could easily have real world consequences.  The Post article notes, for example, that recent testing has shown that the blue-uniformed TSA employees at who operate all of those scanners are increasingly missing weapons or explosives being brought through security.  What is the point of spending billions for high-tech scanners at airports if the TSA employees can’t properly interpret the scanning data?  In the modern world where so many terrorist groups are looking to launch another deadly operation, we simply cannot afford security agencies who aren’t properly performing their jobs.

The TSA is only one example of a problem agency within the DHS.  Whether it is defense against cybersecurity attacks, or securing the border, or dealing with the influx of immigrant minors, the DHS is tasked with tough assignments and is widely perceived as botching them.  The plummeting morale at the DHS isn’t helping matters, either.  A survey performed last year showed that the DHS ranked dead last among large agencies.

The DHS has an important job.  With the constant threats made against America by the likes of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and al-Qaeda, you would think that effective leaders could generate energized agencies where employees understood the significance of their roles and had high morale because of the crucial nature of their work in protecting their families and friends from attack.  Instead, the DHS is a morass of infighting and leaden bureaucratic procedures that hinder effective performance.

The Post article paints an ugly picture, one that should make us all feel less secure about the Department of Homeland Security.

What Do Bureaucrats Do, Anyway?

I commend the Obama Administration for quickly making available a summary of the initial findings about the unsuccessful attempt by the U-Trou Bomber to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day.  A copy of the report if available here.  It is sobering, and troubling, reading.

After I read the report, the main question that came to my mind was:  “What do government bureaucrats do during their workday, anyway?”  The summary report states that there were multiple agencies that bore some part of the responsibility for the failures that allowed Umar Abdulmutallab to board the Northwest flight with a United States visa — despite his father’s explicit warnings about Abdulmutallab’s apparent radicalization and trip to Yemen, despite the fact that Great Britain had refused him a visa, despite the fact that he paid for his ticket with cash, and despite the fact that he boarded the plane without checking any luggage.  It seems clear that the lower-level employees charged with collecting and communicating such bits of intelligence did their job and got the relevant information into the system.  At that point, however, the ball got dropped.

This suggests two levels of failure.  First, the people who were charged with “connecting the dots” failed to do so.  That failure is unfortunate but is at least understandable, because humans obviously can make mistakes.  The more unacceptable failure, in my view, is of those bureaucrats whose jobs give them a more high-level view of the overall homeland defense process.  Those individuals should have recognized the risks posed by the byzantine, divided nature of the system in which different government agencies perform different functions that relate to the same overall issue of who is permitted entry to the United States.  The existence of multiple agencies looking at different pieces of the puzzle obviously raises the prospect of coordination and information-sharing problems.  Why didn’t someone see those problems as, in fact, problems and take steps to cure them by consolidating the work?  Why didn’t one of the supervisory bureaucrats establish some kind of check function to make sure that appropriate analysis of the data, and that coordination with other agencies, was being properly implemented?  Why didn’t those in charge of the agencies push for the kind of computer search engine capability that would allow our intelligence agencies to sift through mounds of data about particular individuals as quickly and thoroughly as a Google search?

Logically, addressing these kinds of questions should have been the principal responsibility of multiple people at the various agencies with a role in homeland protection.  They clearly didn’t properly discharge that responsibility. What were they doing, instead?  Were their days devoted to bureaucratic infighting, to preparing CYA documentation, to coming up with attempted spin to counter criticism of their agencies, or to other political activities?  These are the questions that, I hope, ultimately will be answered as the government takes a deeper look at the failures that allowed the U-Trou Bomber to come so close to achieving a deadly terrorist act on Christmas Day.

The U-Trou Bomber (Cont.)

Time has published a pretty good wrap-up of the various failings of security that allowed the U-Trou Bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, to board the flight from Amersterdam to Detroit with enough high explosive to bring down a loaded airplane sewn into his underwear — notwithstanding the warnings from his father and the other circumstances that should have tipped off our security agencies.  The Time article makes clear that, at minimum, we need to improve our cumbersome system for identifying potential terrorists and sharing information about them.

The U-Trou Bomber (Cont.)

The U-Trou Bomber

The U-Trou Bomber (Cont.)

The continuing story about the failed effort by the U-Trou Bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit will be interesting to follow in the next few days.  It is pretty clear that it was mostly due to luck and faulty detonation that we avoided another deadly terrorist attack that would have killed hundreds,  It also is clear that the unsuccessful attack exposed some serious flaws in our air travel security and some ambiguous standards that, in this case, seemed to operate in a way that made us less secure.  Finally, we also have been warned that there are many other suicide bombers ready to try to succeed where the U-Trou Bomber failed.  We should take that warning to heart and act promptly to shore up our security apparatus.

President Obama has ordered a thorough review of our air travel security, which I think is the right first step.  (It certainly is a more reassuring approach than Department of Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano’s absurd initial statements that the “system worked,” despite the obvious failings that allow Abdulmutallab to go forward with his plot.)  Although it would have been better if our systems had foiled this attempt in the first instance, it is crucial that we not allow recriminations about the current deficiencies in our systems to prevent us from fixing the problems.  From what I’ve read, I think we need to make sure that the State Department and its embassies, which received the warning about the potential danger from Abdulmutallab’s father, share such information with the Department of Homeland Security.  We also need to communicate more effectively with our allies; in this case, Great Britain apparently had Abdulmutallab on some kind of watch list, yet he nevertheless was able to board a plane to the United States.  I also think that, as a rule of thumb, if someone’s father makes the effort to warn us that his son or daughter may be a dangerous potential terrorist, we should accept that as “reasonable grounds” to put the individual on a no-fly list and revoke any visas they may have.  Let’s also not be afraid to give a meaningful pat-down search to someone who buys their ticket with cash and doesn’t seem to be carrying luggage consistent with their announced travel plans.

It appears that this particular incident was made possible only because multiple “red flags” were disregarded.  It’s time to start paying attention to those red flags, and acting on them.

The U-Trou Bomber

The recent story about the failed attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit can’t help but send a collective shudder through the minds of holiday travelers.  The would-be terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, tried to detonate some high explosives strapped to his leg.  Fortunately, his device failed, and our country was spared the trauma of a Christmas Day attack that likely would have killed hundreds.  Credit also should be given to the brave fellow passengers who subdued the terrorist and put out the fire started by his device before he was able to do any further damage.

The terrorist’s backstory is, by now, disturbingly familiar.  Abdulmutallab comes from a privileged background and had been living in a fancy apartment and attending college in London.  Somewhere, somehow, he was introduced to radical Islamic views, joined al Qaeda, and received the training and device needed to carry out the plot.  He became disengaged from his family, which noticed the change in his personality and his religious and political views.  Indeed, his own father warned authorities that his son was a potential terrorist. His story should remind all of us that there still are people out there who want to harm the United States and kill innocent Americans and don’t mind dying in the attempt.

This incident should cause the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, and other American authorities to immediately revisit and tighten air travel security procedures.  Abdulmutallab apparently was on some kind of security watch list.  It is mind-boggling that he was able to carry a syringe and some form of high explosives through security.  It also appears that no one noticed other telltale signs of potential terrorist activity.  Abdulmutallab bought his ticket with cash.  Although he supposedly planned a two-week stay in Detroit, he did not check any luggage and had only a carry-on bag.  How was this guy not an obvious candidate for a careful physical search before he was allowed to board a plane to the United States?

The next time we travel by plane we no doubt will be inconvenienced by some new security procedures designed to prevent a similar attempt.  I don’t mind being inconvenienced if there is a realistic chance that the new procedures will foil the next terrorist plot.  And when I am in the TSA line, waiting, I may think of Abdulmutallab and smile at the thought that, when the explosive device strapped to his leg caught fire, he likely was badly burned in some tender areas.  Allah must have a sense of humor.