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.