Saturday, December 26, 2009

Let the New Security Bumbling Begin ... Meanwhile, Why Has the TSA Been Without a Director Since January?

More than 30 years ago, while working on a book, I spent almost a year on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta. There was very little crime in Malta, owing partially to the good character of its inhabitants, but also to its geography. The island is about 23 miles at its longest and about eight miles at its widest. A criminal, especially one who commits a crime in public, is quickly seized.

While I was there, a spectacular armed bank robbery occurred that kept people talking for months. Not that the robbers got away with much, it was just that they did the deed in public, sticking up the little bank and then running out to the getaway car, which was parked right out front.

As I recall, they got about four miles away before a flock of sheep slowed their escape, and the police arrived and grabbed them. And as I recall the two robbers were sent to jail for a bit, and then committed for a spell to the lunatic asylum, and that's exactly what they called it on Malta.

As I said, this was quite a sensation, and there were demands in the papers (both of them) that Action Be Taken to address the evident crime spree. And Action was taken. The government quickly decreed that henceforth, it would be illegal to park a car in front of a bank.

Much hilarity ensued, the Maltese being famously cynical. It would be correct to say that bank robberies ceased, though no one could remember there being a previous one to the incident in question. There was evidently just the one.

This all comes back to me today as I read the accounts of that scary incident on the Delta/Northwest flight yesterday from Amsterdam to Detroit, where on final approach a moron would-be terrorist from Nigeria named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab "set off a device, while resulted in a fire and what appears to have been an explosion," according to the federal arrest warrant.

The perpetrator "was subdued and restrained by passengers and flight crew," the warrant says.

There is no need here to summarize this incident further, as it is all over the media, of course. This barking idiot Umar Farouk Akdulmatallab, whether trying to make a name for himself or whether acting with encouragement from other aspirational terrorists, tried and failed to create serious damage on an airplane.

But let's now look at the immediate response, because it seems that hysteria once again has been reaction No. 1.

Assuming major press reports are correct, security has been "heightened" all over. O.K., that's sensible enough. One can assume aspirational copy-cats.

But reports also say (though they seem to be thinly sourced) that the T.S.A. plans to impose very strict limits on "passenger behavior," including requiring all passengers to remain seated for the final hour of any flight, and prohibiting passengers from having "personal belongings or other items on their laps" during that final hour.

Let's see, some half-wits rob a bank and drive away in their car, and the government responds by making it illegal to park in front of a bank. Oh, wait, no: That was Malta, a long time ago.

Why am I reminded of it today?

While the security knee-jerkers carry on, making things up as they go along as usual, let's note what seems to me to be a salient point here.

Who is in charge of security?

Congressman Pete King, the ranking Republican on the House homeland security committee, has all over the news today, demanding Action.

Yet has no one asked Mr. King or his colleagues rushing to the microphones the following question: Why have congressional Republicans been blocking President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration -- which has been without a permanent director for nearly a year? (A Bush appointee has been running the agency on a temporary basis since Kip Hawley, the last director, left office when the new administration took over in January).

Hawley had his critics, but by most accounts (including mine) he was a serious professional who understood risk management as opposed to mere security theater (though he was forced, by Congress and the media, to keep the security-theater show firmly on the boards).

One of the initiatives Hawley was intently engaged in was working with foreign air-travel security authorities to try to impose international standards not only in things like airport screening (which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab evidently sailed through with incendiary material on his person in Amsterdam), but also in vital efforts such as intelligence gathering and sharing. Hawley had the respect and the attention of international security agencies. Serious progress was being made.

But Hawley left in January, and the T.S.A. has been without a director since.

According to some reports today, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a known security threat, in that his name and identity evidently appeared in some intelligence data-banks, meaning he should have been on the "selectee" section of the famous "terrorist watch lists." That means, he should have got a thorough secondary going-over and questioning before he boarded that flight to the United States.

Yet, a terrorist -- aspirational or not -- slipped through cracks in the system and managed to create that incident on an airplane in U.S. airspace.

Hawley was working to seal those cracks, and the man President Omaba named to replace Hawley, Erroll Southers, has been cooling his heels, waiting for Republicans in Congress to get out of the way so the nomination can be approved.

Evidently, there is some concern among some Republicans that Mr. Southers might be insufficiently hostile toward unions. And so the T.S.A. goes without a leader.

Mr. Southers is the assistant chief of police at Los Angeles International Airport, in charge of intelligence and Homeland Security. He is a well-respected scholarly authority in risk-analysis as a component of intelligence and security. He is a former FBI agent, and a former cop. That evidently isn't good enough for right-wing Repuiblican Sen. Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, who has been blocking the Southers appointment. DeMint is a former market researcher.

So before we let the T.S.A. run around reacting wildly to the Delta/Northwest incident, let's ask why that agency has been without a director since last January?

You know, the same agency that managed to accidentally post online its entire security procedures manual recently? That keeps changing signals about deploying new body-imaging technology?

"If there ever was a question about clearing the way for the appointment of a permanent administrator for this beleaguered agency, it has certainly been answered by this most recent misstep," according to a statement earlier this month in support of the Southers nomination by the American Federation of Government Employees.

That's a union.

The statement criticized Sen. DeMint for placing a Senate "hold" on the Southers nomination. DeMint, of course, is the South Carolina far-right-wing activist and super-patriot. A single senator, even one in the minority, can block a presidential appointment these days, pretty much indefinitely.

This is what DeMint has to say grandly today on his Senate Web site:

"Sen. Jim DeMint believes terrorism is the greatest threat posed to America and that the United States must remain committed to the long war on global terror. We can not afford to stand by while networks of terror assemble, plan and act against free and open societies. America must pursue terrorists and any one who supports their murderous plans."

Back in October, on the same Senate Web site, DeMint explained his blocking of President Obama's nominee to run the T.S.A. this way:

"Today, U.S. Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), ranking member of the Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee, sent a letter to Erroll Southers, President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), asking for a clear answer about whether he will unionize the TSA’s security screeners if confirmed.

'The safety and security of the American people are far too important to be controlled by union bosses,' said Senator DeMint. 'It’s time for Mr. Southers to give an unequivocal answer: Will he give union bosses control over the safety of Americans at our airports, yes or no?'

'Unionizing TSA would be a homeland security disaster. TSA needs to be nimble in responding to ever-changing threats. Having to wait and check with the union bosses before reacting to urgent aviation security threats reduces our ability to keep Americans safe. TSA must quickly move personnel to protect the traveling public, and allowing union bosses to control these decisions is a dangerous and unacceptable security risk.'"

Yep, the T.S.A. has been drifting along without a director for a year because a right-wing Republican from South Carolina has surveyed the situation and identified the real terrorist threat to America:




paleolith said...

Glad to hear your comments about Kip Hawley. From an article in the NYT today:

“That doesn’t suggest to me they let guard down,” Mr. Hawley said. Holiday traffic is too great to have marshals on every plane.

I first read that as saying Hawley had said holiday traffic is too great, and after reading your column, went back and read it carefully. He didn't say it.

Jonathan L. Yarmis said...

I appreciate your efforts to try and understand just what the actual government policies are in response to this latest terrorist attempt but please, please, please make sure we focus on the total absurdity of this one. Several observations:

- How would these new policies have thwarted the attempt anyhow?

- This is really just a feint. The existing policies, which would have helped, were massively ignored. Instead of saying "we're making sure this never happens again," instead they're saying "we need even more policies.

- We were alerted by his father. He was, or should have been, on the watch list. He paid cash. On the day of travel. For a one-way ticket. From a known trouble spot. With only carry-on luggage. Could he have sent us any more signs???

For me, this is the straw that broke the camel's back:

chocko said...

Here's the actual quote: "Counterterrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better. Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers."