Thursday, December 31, 2009

On the Job Training
On the Job Training
December 30, 2009
M. Zuhdi Jasser
National Review Online-- The Corner Blog
by M. Zuhdi Jasser

It is sad that President Obama and his team are still going through on-the-job training a year into their administration. Despite the fact that Janet Napolitano, our homeland-security secretary, bizarrely tried to nix the use of the term terrorism and despite the fact that his own White House dubiously dubbed this global conflict "an overseas contingency operation," the president has finally learned to use the most obvious term - terror- this week. Mr. President, if you are listening, here are a few more thoughts from a concerned Muslim. You cannot just stay hunkered down at your "beachhead" in Hawaii after another virulent byproduct of global political Islam attacked on our homeland. While no one was really hurt, you don't exactly look like you are taking the issue seriously when your photo of the day captures a romp on the beach. It was not a coincidence that this was attempted on Christmas day, yet you ignore the religious struggles in this conflict. It is time that our commander-in-chief and the leader of the free world come to terms with the reality that this is the greatest conflict of the century and a battle of ideas between western liberal secular democracies and political Islam.

While you and your colleagues are stymied by the question of whether to even use the term "terror," the ideology of al-Qaeda (violent political Islam) is spreading exponentially. Your systematic failure to advance American security against ideologies that threaten us may turn catastrophic. In fact the Christmas bomber said so himself, telling an investigator that "there are more just like me who will strike soon." By all means, Mr. President, fix the holes in our security that we know are there - but terrorists who are suicidal religious zealots and very creative will sadly very likely strike again soon. This year certainly proves that.

Our nation is clearly becoming more and more anxious and concerned over the rash of radicalized Muslims. Is it not time for you to acknowledge that terror is a simply a symptom of a more profound deeper underlying disease? That disease is political Islam.

Hopefully you will realize that we can only defeat an enemy we can name, describe, and understand. As Thomas Friedman and others have recently reminded us, the only answer to jihadists, Salafists, and Islamists is a narrative from within America, and most important from within Islam, that counters the global supremacism of political Islam. Until you say exactly that, we will continue to flail in this conflict.

I hope after Nidal Hasan, after the American jihadis in Pakistan, and now after the Christmas bomber radicalized in London, that you see our need for clear leadership against political Islam and its ubiquitous permeating militant manifestations. We need a leader who recognizes that this conflict is most significantly within Muslim communities as we Muslims struggle with the conflict between theocracy and democracy, sharia and liberty, Islamism and freedom, and salafism and modernity. The longer you squander your leadership and stay silent on this, the more vulnerable we will be.

- M. Zuhdi Jasser is president of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which is based in Phoenix, Ariz. He is a former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander and a physician in private practice.

This blog commentary appeared online at the National Review Blog "The Corner" on November 30, 2009. It can be found at this link []

December 30, 2009
U.S. Had Early Signals of a Terror Plot, Obama Says

HONOLULU — President Obama was told Tuesday about more missed signals and uncorrelated intelligence that should have prevented a would-be bomber from boarding a flight to the United States, leading the president to declare that there had been a “systemic failure” of the nation’s security apparatus.

Two officials said the government had intelligence from Yemen before Friday that leaders of a branch of Al Qaeda were talking about “a Nigerian” being prepared for a terrorist attack. While the attacker was not named, officials said it would have been evident had it been compared to information about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 23-year-old Nigerian charged with trying to blow up an American passenger jet on Christmas Day.

The government also had more information about where Mr. Abdulmutallab had been and what some of his plans were before boarding the Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit. Some of the information was partial or incomplete at the time, and it was not obvious that it was connected, one senior administration official said, but in retrospect it now appears clear that had it all been examined together it would have pointed to the pending attack.

The official, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive review, said the government was “increasingly confident” that Al Qaeda had a role in the attack, as the group’s Yemeni branch has publicly claimed. Such a conclusion could lead the United States to provide more intelligence and equipment to the Yemeni government and even consider fresh targets in a continuing campaign against radicals in Yemen.

The fresh information about what the government knew before the flight on Friday was provided to White House officials Monday night and to the president on Tuesday while he was here vacationing in Hawaii.

Shortly after being briefed, Mr. Obama told reporters that a review had revealed a breakdown in the intelligence system that did not properly identify Mr. Abdulmutallab as a dangerous extremist who should have been prevented from flying to the United States.

“A systemic failure has occurred, and I consider that totally unacceptable,” Mr. Obama said.

He said he had ordered government agencies to give him a preliminary report on Thursday about what happened and added that he would “insist on accountability at every level,” although he did not elaborate.

Mr. Obama alluded to the intelligence in his statement. “Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged,” the president said. “The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America.”

The president’s withering assessment of the government’s performance could reshape the intensifying political debate over the thwarted terrorist attack. Instead of defending the system, Mr. Obama sided with critics who complained that it did not work and positioned himself as a reformer who will fix it. At the same time, the decision to speak a second time after remaining out of sight for three days underscores the administration’s concern over being outflanked on national security.

The aftermath of the attempted bombing has been marked by an increasingly fierce partisan exchange over culpability heading into a midterm election year. With Republicans on the attack against the administration as not taking terrorism seriously enough, Democrats returned fire by accusing the opposition of standing in the way of needed personnel and money while exploiting public fears.

The debate has escalated since Mr. Obama’s secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, said Sunday that “the system worked” after officials said the suspect tried to ignite explosive chemicals aboard a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit. Ms. Napolitano made clear the next day that she had meant the system worked in its response to the attempted bombing, not before it happened.

Mr. Obama appeared to be trying to contain the damage on Tuesday, offering “systemic failure” as a substitute diagnosis for “system worked.” He framed Ms. Napolitano’s statement by saying she was right that “once the suspect attempted to take down Flight 253, after his attempt, it’s clear that passengers and crew, our homeland security systems and our aviation security took all appropriate actions.”

The president praised the professionalism of the nation’s intelligence, counterterrorism, homeland security and law enforcement officials. But he spared little in his sharp judgment about how a known extremist could be allowed to board a flight bound for the United States after his own father had warned that he had become radical.

“There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security,” Mr. Obama told reporters at the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay outside Honolulu, near his vacation home in Kailua. “We need to learn from this episode and act quickly to fix the flaws in our system because our security is at stake and lives are at stake.”

Mr. Obama suggested that he would overhaul the watch-list system. “We’ve achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks,” he said. “But it’s becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have.”

Mr. Abdulmutallab, who has been linked to the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, came to the attention of the American authorities when his father went to the American Embassy in Nigeria last month to report that his son had expressed radical views before disappearing. The father, a respected retired banker, did not say his son planned to attack Americans but sought help locating him and bringing him home, United States officials said.

After Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father asked for help, embassy officials from several agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency, met to discuss the case, officials said.

Paul Gimigliano, a C.I.A. spokesman, said that was the first time the agency had heard of the young Nigerian. “We did not have his name before then,” he said.

The embassy sent a cable to Washington, which resulted in Mr. Abdulmutallab’s name being entered in a database of 550,000 people with possible ties to terrorism. But he was not put on the much smaller no-fly list of 4,000 people or on a list of 14,000 people who are required to undergo additional screening before flying, nor was his multiple-entry visa to the United States revoked.

“It now appears that weeks ago this information was passed to a component of our intelligence community but was not effectively distributed so as to get the suspect’s name on a no-fly list,” Mr. Obama said of the father’s warning. “There appears to be other deficiencies as well. Even without this one report, there were bits of information available within the intelligence community that could have and should have been pieced together.”

Mr. Obama’s appearance came after another day of Republican criticism. On Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee sought to inject the bombing attempt into next year’s midterm races. In a series of news releases, the committee sought to press vulnerable Democrats on whether they agreed with Ms. Napolitano’s initial assessment.

“All year long, we’ve asked the question: What is the administration’s overarching strategy to confront the terrorist threat and keep America safe?” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, said in a statement Tuesday. “We haven’t gotten a satisfactory answer, and the secretary’s ‘the system worked’ response doesn’t inspire confidence.”

Democrats countered that Republicans had shown disregard for any terrorism risk by blocking the president’s nominee for head of the Transportation Security Administration and by voting this year against a measure providing $44 billion for Department of Homeland Security operations.

“They have essentially voted against and delayed providing the tools that are necessary to prevent these kinds of actions,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

They also criticized Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior Republican on the intelligence committee and a leading critic of the White House, for tying the thwarted bombing to an appeal for money for his race for governor. In a letter first reported by The Grand Rapids Press, Mr. Hoekstra sought donations to help counter Democratic “efforts to weaken our security.”

A spokesman for Mr. Hoekstra’s campaign said the letter was appropriate and sought to inform potential donors of his leadership on national security issues.

Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and majority leader, said on Tuesday that once the Senate returned on Jan. 19, he would move quickly to overcome Republicans’ objections to the nomination of Erroll G. Southers, a former F.B.I. agent, to lead the security agency.

Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, has blocked the appointment, saying he was worried Mr. Southers might allow T.S.A. workers to join labor unions. “Republicans have decided to play politics with this nomination by blocking final confirmation,” Mr. Reid said.

Mr. DeMint said he was seeking an opportunity to debate the nomination rather than have it approved without discussion, and he accused Mr. Reid of grandstanding. “Senator Reid completely ignored this nominee until the recent terror attempt,” Mr. DeMint said, “and now he’s trying to show concern for airport security.”

Peter Baker reported from Honolulu, and Carl Hulse from Washington. Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington.

Eight yrs after 9/11

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; A13

The more I think about the Christmas all-but-bombing, the angrier I get. At the multiple failures that allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to get on the plane with explosives sewn in his underwear. And at the Obama administration's initial, everything's-fine-everybody-move-right-along reaction.

I understand: When it comes to a terrorist attack, we live in an age of not if but when. What seems obvious in retrospect is rarely evident at the time; hindsight needs no Lasik. For every Abdulmutallab who slips through the inevitable cracks, many more are foiled. Or so we hope.

And so we have learned, because we must, to live with a new layer of risk. Like climbers adjusting to a higher altitude, we have grown so accustomed to the changed circumstances that we forget about the thinner air, the omnipresent danger. Until moments like the episode on Flight 253 yank us back to the new reality -- and, worse, to the realization that, eight long and expensive years later, not nearly enough has changed.

"Information was not shared. . . . Analysis was not pooled. . . . Often the handoffs of information were lost across the divide separating the foreign and domestic agencies of the government."

"Improved use of 'no-fly' and 'automatic selectee' lists should not be delayed. . . . This screening function should be performed by the TSA [Transportation Security Administration], and it should utilize the larger set of watchlists maintained by the federal government."

"The TSA . . . must give priority attention to improving the ability of screening checkpoints to detect explosives on passengers."

A trenchant analysis of the Christmas attack? No, quotes from the report of the 9/11 Commission.

As with the numerous missed opportunities to stop the 9/11 hijackers, the Abdulmutallab story that has emerged so far is an enraging litany of how-can-it-be's.

How can it be that his visa was not revoked after his own father went to U.S. authorities to report concerns about his son's radicalization? "After his father contacted the embassy recently, we coded his visa file so that, had he attempted to renew his visa months from now, it would have triggered an in-depth review of his application," one U.S. official told CNN. How reassuring.

How can it be that, after the father's alert, the most that seems to have been done was to place Abdulmutallab's name in a database so sprawling as to be nearly useless? There was, one administration official explained, "insufficient derogatory information" to bump Abdulmutallab to a higher status of watch list. Excuse me, but how much more derogatory can you get?

How can it be that British authorities denied Abdulmutallab's request for a visa renewal -- without triggering a comparable review by U.S. officials? Was the United States not informed or did U.S. authorities simply not take action in response? Either there is a continuing problem of intergovernmental communication or a continuing problem of bureaucratic lassitude. How can it be that an individual passenger (a) traveling from Nigeria, with its known security lapses, (b) not checking luggage and (c) purchasing a ticket with cash was not singled out for additional screening? What did he have to do -- wear a sign saying, "You might want to check my underwear"?

How can it be that screening technology is so lacking so long after the 9/11 Commission called for "priority attention" to detect explosives on passengers?

How can it be that our best line of defense seems to have been a combination of incompetence and bravery -- incompetence by the attacker whose device failed to detonate properly, and bravery by passengers who acted so quickly to subdue him and put out the fire?

And how can it be, in the face of all this, that the administration's communications strategy, cooked up on a conference call, was to assure us that officials were looking into things but in the meantime we should settle down?

This was not just one supposedly out-of-context stumble by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; it was the official line. Making the rounds of Sunday talk shows, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs resisted every effort to get him to acknowledge that something had gone seriously wrong.

President Obama finally got it right Tuesday with his acknowledgement of "systemic failure" that was "totally unacceptable." Whether this is an effort at damage control or a belated realization of what seemed obvious from the start, it's a better strategy than the previous approach.

The American people are not as stupid as the administration's initial approach assumed. They accept that a smart, determined terrorist can -- and eventually probably will -- slip through the best-constructed defenses. They cannot accept -- nor should they -- a system so slipshod as to let through a bungler like Abdulmutallab, with all the red flags that were waved, and ignored.

A failure to communicate surrounding would-be bomber

Wednesday, December 30, 2009; A12

ALLEGED BOMBER Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should never have been able to board Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit. In an editorial Tuesday we highlighted the available advanced imaging technology that would have revealed the lethal explosive hidden in his underwear. Now we want to shine a light on the stunning breakdown in communication among the State Department, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the British government that allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to buy a ticket in the first place.

To understand the "mix of human and systemic failures" that President Obama admitted Tuesday, you need only read the transcript of Monday's State Department news briefing. Mr. Abdulmutallab's father walked into the U.S. Embassy in Abujah, Nigeria, on Nov. 19 to express concern about his son. The prominent Nigerian banker told officials that his son had disappeared in Yemen, had become radicalized in Islam and severed all ties with the family. The next day that information was sent in a cable to the National Counterterrorism Center, which is the central repository for terrorism information. While that agency put Mr. Abdulmutallab's name on the vast (and seemingly inconsequential) terrorist watch list, it didn't believe that the information provided by the father was enough to hoist the son onto the "no-fly" or "selectee" list.

This might make sense were it not for a key fact that was there for all to see, but that State failed to call attention to: The would-be bomber had been issued a two-year visa to enter the United States in June 2008. "Anybody who went in to input that information [in a government database] would see that he had a visa from Embassy London," said State's spokesman, Ian Kelly. Yet no one did.

There was also the fact that the British government had denied a visa to Mr. Abdulmutallab in May and placed him on its watch list. British Home Secretary Alan Johnson said that U.S. officials should have been told that and believes they were. But again, the NCTC officials deciding on Mr. Abdulmutallab's status apparently lacked that information.

The failure of the NCTC tripwire was not the only one that allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to board Flight 253. Having disappeared in Yemen over the summer, he turned up on Dec. 16 in Accra, Ghana, where he bought his Lagos-Amsterdam-Detroit ticket -- with cash. That, and the fact that he checked in without luggage, should have flagged him for further screening at the Lagos airport before his Dec. 24 flight to Amsterdam, and again when he transferred in Amsterdam for the Detroit flight. It didn't.

"It's essential that we diagnose the problems quickly," Mr. Obama said Tuesday. The president said he wants a preliminary report on the use of detection equipment and the gaps in information-sharing by Thursday. That's a fast turnaround -- but it's also more than enough time. The failures are there for all to see.

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