A "mix of human and systemic failure" allowed a Nigerian terror suspect to board a U.S.-bound airplane with explosives in his underwear, President Barack Obama said Tuesday.
"When our government has information on a known extremist and that information is not shared and acted on as it should have been, a systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that unacceptable," Obama said.
Obama's remarks were his most pointed since a near-disastrous bombing attempt of a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day that has aimed a spotlight on a patchwork of fixes the government made after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and remaining holes in the security system.
With the high-alert New Year's Eve festivities in Times Square fast approaching, fixing those loopholes has taken on a renewed urgency, particularly in light of renewed threats from a group called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claiming credit for the Christmas Day incident and boasting that it had infiltrated security systems at the world's airports. "We will continue on this path until we achieve success," the group said in a statement.
Despite billions of dollars spent, and countless hours of investigations, the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 was prevented through the intervention of vigilant passengers and sheer luck.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, of Nigeria, was entered into a federal database after his father reported his increased radicalism to the U.S. Embassy, but he was not placed on a watch list and his visa to enter the United States was not revoked. He simply bought a one-way plane ticket with cash, checked no baggage and walked on board the flight while carrying explosives.
The missed chances in Abdulmutallab's case have prompted widespread cries for reform: of technology advances that have been incomplete or plagued by missteps; of the all-important terrorism "watch list," which advocates say needs improvement; of security policies that prohibit national or ethnic profiling; or of long-standing recommendations meant to prevent terrorist attacks that, for various reasons, have yet to be put in place.
Full-body screening machines may have picked up hidden explosives such as those Abdulmutallab was carrying, but only about 40 such machines are being used in 20 of the nation's 400 airports.
The U.S. Transportation Safety Administration has said it plans to install about 150 more of these devices next year. There is one installed at Kennedy Airport.
Andrew R. Thomas, who edits the Journal of Transportation Security, estimated costs of the latest full-body scanning equipment, including training, at more than $1 million per machine.
"They've got bureaucratic inefficiency," he said, referring to the TSA. "The whole thing comes down to costs."
But some believe the full-body scanners are a violation of privacy. Current rules call for their use on a voluntary basis as an alternative to a pat-down search. Some people worry what will become of the body scan image after they have passed through an airport scanner.
"We've got to be careful of people's civil liberties and civil rights," Thomas said.
The gaping holes in airline security exposed by the Christmas Day attempt may be glaring, but experts don't expect them to be closed anytime soon.
Government bureaucracy, privacy issues and the expense of full-body scanning equipment are all obstacles to improved security, experts said.
"Are there holes? Yeah," said Alvy Dodson, a former federal security director with the Transportation Safety Administration in Dallas. "I don't think this points up anything more than, every time you think you've got all the holes closed, you find you've got another one."
Relying too heavily on technology to prevent terrorists from attacking aviation is a mistake, said Sheldon Jacobson, a professor of engineering at the University of Chicago at Urbana-Champaigne, who works on aviation security modeling and risk management issues.
"Basically, it's people who bring down airplanes, not bombs," he said.
Making more use of information collected "voluntarily" - including how a ticket was purchased, whether the person is a frequent flier, nationality and ethnicity, are all things that could be used to identify fliers for more aggressive security screening, Jacobson said.
This week, New York Assembly member Dov Hikind (D-Brooklyn) said he intends to introduce a bill that would allow police and peace officers to use ethnic profiling when searching for potential terror suspects.
"Those who have been involved, those who have been convicted, fit a certain profile," Hikind said Tuesday. "They are young Muslim men of Middle Eastern or South Asian backgrounds."
The bill would add ethnicity as one of many factors that officers can use when determining who to target in searching for terror suspects. Hikind said the bill would free officers from concerns about being accused of discrimination.
Hikind said he plans to introduce the legislation when the Assembly reconvenes next month. A similar bill that Hikind proposed in 2005 never made it out of committee.
"Terrorists aren't limited to the Muslim faith," Chaudry said. "It was not that long ago that certain Irish groups were pretty proficient terrorists."
When the 9/11 Commission - a bipartisan group charged with investigating the Sept. 11 attacks - issued its findings in 2004, a central recommendation called for the United States to improve its efforts to track the visas of foreign visitors.
But five years after that report was released, and eight years after the 9/11 hijackers exploited the visa system to remain in this country after their visas expired, the loophole has not been shut.
The visa issue is one of several glaring gaps in the United States' counterterrorism efforts that persists, despite the suggestions the commission made after its nearly three-year inquiry. The commission's leader, former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, has said that about 20 percent of the group's suggestions have yet to be adopted.
In addition to the visa problems, Kean said, the United States needs to do more to improve communications among first responders, improve cooperation among the nation's intelligence agencies and to streamline congressional oversight over homeland security.
Six months ago, the heads of the 9/11 Commission announced the formation of a new private-sector group to continue monitoring, improving and speeding up the government's response to its recommendations.
"More progress could be made more quickly," Lee Hamilton, who vice-chaired the commission, told reporters at the time, accusing the government of "insufficient urgency" when it came to preventing future attacks.
The man behind the Christmas Day bomb plot reportedly came to the attention of federal law enforcement late last month. It's not known exactly what information was in hand, but it warranted Abdulmutallab's name going on a National Counterterrorism Center list.
The list amounts to a grab bag of intelligence on suspected terrorists collected from law enforcement and allies around the world. Information is often incomplete as even partial names of suspects are included, according to a former federal official familiar with the list.
When enough identifying data are available and "reasonable suspicion" of terrorist activity is found, a name can be moved to the Consolidated Terror Watchlist. Abdulmutallab never made this second list, which would have subjected him to scrutiny by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Security officials have said they lacked evidence to move Abdulmutallab from the first list, which includes roughly 550,000 names, to the more restrictive second, which has about 400,000 individuals.
People familiar with the maintenance of the watch lists say judgments of what amounts to "reasonable suspicion" can be subjective. Privacy advocates raised alarms and an effort was made to ensure only targets of genuine concern were included.
According to government reports, the number of suspect names on the list that included Abdulmutallab was about 158,000 in June 2004 and rose to 755,000 in May 2007 before falling to its present level.
NO AGENCY HEADS
Two federal agencies charged with keeping potential terrorists off airplanes and out of the country have been without their top leaders for nearly a year.
Obama has ordered a review of U.S. security policies following the failed Christmas Day attack. He vowed Monday to "do everything that we can to keep America safe."
The acting heads of the Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Protection agency - both created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - will be at the forefront of these efforts.
It took the Obama administration more than eight months to nominate anyone to lead the two agencies.
Bogged down with health care reform, the Senate has yet to set a date to hold hearings for the Customs position. And Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) has placed a hold on the president's choice to head the TSA over the senator's concern that the new leader would let TSA screeners join a labor union.
This has some Democrats blaming politics for the vacancy. Some Republicans, meanwhile, were critical of the administration. "Running a security agency with a revolving door is a recipe for failure," said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.).
Former U.S. attorney Alan Bersin has been nominated to run the Customs bureau, and former FBI agent and police detective Erroll Southers is the president's pick for TSA.