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OPINION: To thwart terror threats, we have to make big changes

Michael Balboni, a former state senator and former New York State deputy secretary for public safety, is a partner with Navigators Global.

The world has been focused on the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack. But this incident is only one of three recent incidents that highlight the continuing threats to our security and the continuing need to improve how we protect our nation.

The recent Najibullah Zazi case, in which a man reportedly trained by al-Qaida traveled from Colorado with an alleged plan to bomb various sites in New York City, demonstrated how, working together, the FBI, CIA and NYPD can succeed in stopping a real plot. November's Fort Hood shooting, however, showed the terrible price we pay when officials have information that indicates a possible problem but fail to act. In that case, the authorities knew about suspicious activities of the shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, but did not take steps to ensure that he was no threat.

Likewise, the attempted attack on Christmas Day has resulted in fear, outrage and amazement that a passenger who seemingly displayed every red flag to be kept off a plane, was allowed to board and, as a result, almost detonated an incendiary device.

President Barack Obama's brief address on Thursday seemed to indicate that as officials review this latest case, they realize that our security efforts must continue to evolve, just as the attacks do. But we have seen this threat coming for years, and have already put into place systems that were supposed to connect the dots and provide intelligence for security personnel. Many at the Transportation Safety Administration and in our intelligence services are doing an amazing job, but the Byzantine, turf-conscious and politically obsessed ways of Washington have stymied many of their efforts. That has to change.

From the beginning, the discussion around securing our airplanes has had the wrong focus. After 9/11, Congress sought to throw money and people at the problem instead of designing layered systems of defense. The best example was the debate over whether to unionize the TSA workforce - would anyone argue that we should unionize the army?

We need to change the culture of our airport security. The current interest in full-body scanners is worthwhile, but we should also focus more on human interaction with passengers. Everyone - from the airlines' check-in representatives at the counters to the security screeners to the gate and onboard airline personnel - should be trained in the Behavioral Assessment Screening System.

With this program, designed in Massachusetts and utilized extensively by the Israelis, security representatives ask passengers where they are traveling, how long they are staying and who they are traveling with, while examining their luggage. All the while, the passenger is evaluated for signs of nervousness and anxiety, which trigger a second, more thorough, screening.

Will the adoption of this system add some delay to passengers' entry onto planes? Probably. Is it worth it to ensure our safety and restore our confidence? El Al has never had a successful attack.

Additionally, the terrorist watch and no-fly lists need to be better maintained and include biometric data. For security personnel to catch someone on the watch list, that passenger either has to use his real name or a known alias, or he has to be matched to a photo. In this day of high-tech information, biometric data - fingerprints, retinal scans or facial images - need to be distributed to every system entry point. Otherwise, these lists become merely advisory and not the tools we need to rely upon.

The United States cannot do this alone. It's obvious that if a foreign airport permits a suicide bomber onto a U.S.-bound plane, Americans will die just as if the bomber boarded on U.S. soil. The current aviation security standard for the world was developed through the United Nations. The existence of a global standard is good news - but the bad news is that it provides a false sense of security, since it is a lower common denominator of security.

Given al-Qaida's penchant for attacks on airplanes, we should insist that in order to fly to the United States, tougher standards be adopted and treaties be enacted to allow our security personnel to audit these systems.

The 9/11 Commission mandated that our intelligence agencies be coordinated with simplified oversight. But when the president called for answers about how a passenger was able to smuggle on an incendiary device, there was an alphabet soup of agency heads in the room: DHS, TSA, NCTC, NSA, DNI, FBI and CIA. It is the job of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center to round up the information and disseminate it to front-line security personnel. In the case of the Christmas Day bombing, this did not happen.

Changes must be made to ensure that the next time, it does. The next director of national intelligence should oversee the budgets of the other intelligence collection agencies. This would stop the turf battles and the blame game at which Washington excels. One job, one responsibility, by one person.

These steps will require a focused, sustained effort, and they won't be easy. But not adopting them will mean that we are content to leave security gaps that could result in more Christmas Day failures than Zazi successes. Protecting a free and open society is nearly impossible, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. It means we should try harder.


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