Going through airport security on Christmas afternoon, I noticed signs of additional security. Whispering among Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials regarding increased random pat-downs of travelers. More carry-on baggage being re-screened and searched by hand. I had not yet heard the news out of Detroit but knew enough from experience that something was up. Upon boarding the plane, individual television screens at each seat were carrying DIRECTV and CNN. One woman a few rows behind me decided she did not want to fly to D.C. after all and de-boarded the plane.
Throughout the flight, I was glued to the screen, watching CNN and other news channels beaming in experts via telephone and video feed talking about the attack. Few facts were clear though everyone who appeared or spoke seemed to have some thought on whether there was blame to be had, whether the event was preventable, and what this meant for security. Two days later, facts are still being compiled and the blame game appears to be escalating as, unfortunately, politics rears its ugly head in DC.
As we continue to hear more about the incident and the response, here are a few observations:
This Should Not Be A Democrat or Republican Issue: Post-incident, there appears to be an increase in rhetoric in the politicians and talking heads blaming the Obama Administration for “downplaying” terrorism. Others have pointed that the failures, if any, of watchlists and no-fly lists date back to the Bush Administration. It is safe to say that the brave passengers on Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas were likely of various political stripes and probably counted among themselves supporters and detractors of both Administrations. It has been said time and time again – homeland security is not a Democrat or Republican issue. With regards to the current incident, tragedy was averted because of the diligence of the passengers and crew of 253 and they were part of the homeland security system that was built over the past eight years. Whether other parts of the system need reinforcement, improvement, or revamping should be reviewed but should be done so in a constructive manner designed to strengthen security and not place blame.
The Investigation is Ongoing and the Facts As Reported, Even By “Authorities,” May Not Be Right: One thing I have noticed over the last several days – the facts keep evolving as the news evolves. This is, in part, due to the “breaking news” nature of our news cycles that rely on “authorities,” “eyewitnesses,” and “experts” to dissect situations. One thing is clear – the investigation into the incident is ongoing and some facts will not and should not be made public to allow the investigators and prosecutors to do their jobs. Also, the reasoning for some increased security efforts may be classified and should be kept so to protect both the sources and methods by which the intelligence agencies gather information. For the public, this means we need an increased awareness as we sift through the available information and a dose of reality to recognize that talking heads are not necessarily in the know on the most sensitive facts.
The Watchlist System Needs Improvement: During my time on the House Homeland Security Committee, we held numerous hearings and briefings on the terrorist watchlist system and its databases. What has come to light in the past few days is the complexity of the system. A parent reporting that his son is becoming radicalized may result in an open file and an entry into the 550,000 + Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment but what elevates that person to the next level so he is on a “no fly” or “selectee” list or otherwise identified to international, federal, state and local officials as a threat? At the same time, how can the list be designed so that the innocent are not wrongly flagged and kept from travelling? (We’ve all heard the horror stories of neighbors, politicians, and even children being wrongly flagged because their names are similar to individuals on the list). President Obama’s order this past weekend to review the databases is the right move. The solution, however, will not be an easy one.
Technology Improvement and Implementation: It was reported that international flights into the U.S. were delayed by at least an hour due to increased security after Friday’s incident. In addition to noting the problems with the watchlist system, a number of commentators have discussed the need to use detection equipment at checkpoints and the privacy concerns that accompany their use. In particular, body-scanning machines – x-ray backscatter and millimeter wave screening – are being pointed to as technologies that could assist in efforts to quickly, efficiently, and accurately screen passengers. The technologies have met resistance due to privacy concerns. Back in October, I wrote The Right to Be Left Alone, which noted that the technology had undergone a Privacy Impact Assessment by the DHS Privacy Office and had been found to have sufficient privacy protections in place. If we are to meet evolving terrorism threats, we need evolving technologies that have proven privacy benefits and protections.
TSA Needs its Administrator ASAP: TSA’s nominated Administrator, Erroll Southers, is in limbo in the Senate, his nomination held up by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) over whether or not Southers plans to support the unionization of TSA screeners. Few questions, if any, have been raised about Southers’ qualifications or the merit of his nomination. He would join TSA from the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, where he served as the Assistant Chief for Homeland Security and Intelligence. He also has held positions as the Deputy Director of the State of California, a local police officer, and a Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Friday’s incident makes it very clear that TSA needs permanent leadership now to ensure that the agency is doing all it can for passenger security. Now is not the time for holding Southers’ nomination up over an administrative policy issue. One of the first actions that the Senate should take up upon its return is to move on Southers’ nomination.
As more information comes to light in the next few days, there may be additional observations to be made. As a closing note, is heartening to note DHS and TSA, along with federal agencies, responded quickly to the Christmas day incident. New security measures and procedures were implemented with little disruption (other than expected delays). Secretary Napolitano and TSA encouraged Americans to “continue their planned holiday travel.” We were encouraged to be diligent but not fearful. That, in and of itself, shows how homeland security has evolved and how segments of the system are working. Expect other parts to undergo extensive review in the coming weeks and months.