Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 10, 2010

Did DHS Screw Up “Again” By Letting the Times Square Bomber on a Plane?

Filed under: Aviation Security,Intelligence and Info-Sharing,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on May 10, 2010

This post — written by a colleague — should have been posted on Friday, May 7th.  For a several reasons, it was not posted. However, the point the author makes is still valid.


There were plenty of articles and comments over the past few days stating that once again DHS did not fulfill its responsibilities of keeping bad people out of an otherwise sterile security environment.

As the story goes, DHS is to be blamed for allowing the Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, to board the plane thus putting the flight at risk or allowing him the opportunity to make an escape to freedom. Unfortunately, in most instances DHS has become the Nation’s equivalent of an inflatable punching bag when all manner of safety and security activities go awry. Such criticism is offered by the politically disingenuous intelligencia and easily accepted by the media and uninformed masses.

Might there be another way to assess the situation?

Suppose there were compelling intelligence collection, investigative, and prosecutorial reasons to allow the suspect to continue with his plan (attempting to depart the country) up until he was about to leave a “positively controlled” environment.

During Tuesday’s press conference, AG Holder responded to the “did Shahzad almost get away” question by stating “I was aware of the tracking that was going on and was never in fear of losing him.”

Might this be another example of the intelligence collection-safeguarding society-prosecutorial discretion tension that occurs almost daily when trying to assess whether to arrest and shut down activities perceived to be related to terrorism, contrasted to the need to allow the bad actors to continue with their plans for purposes of gaining a better contextual understanding of the plot and associated conspirators?

Or, as Paul Harvey suggests, possibly there is more to the story than meets the eye: FBI Team ‘Lost’ Suspected Times Square Bomber During Crucial Hours

In either case, whether this was a well orchestrated intelligence collection operation or, as the web article above notes, the FBI did lose Shahzad in the waning hours of the manhunt, it appears DHS should be praised, not excoriated, for being an effective safeguard of last resort.

As the article notes, Shahzad was first added to the no fly list at noon on Monday (May 3rd). A decision and job not of DHS’ doing.

Once DHS officials became aware he was on the plane, based on a routine check of the flight manifest by CBP officials, procedures were followed and the system was implemented as designed.

Maybe this incident has highlighted how the DHS should be viewed in most safety and security settings: the Nation’s safeguard of last resort.

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Comment by Peter J. Brown

May 10, 2010 @ 6:47 am

In this news item from ABC News, one can detect structural elements in motion in the somewhat instantaneous post-incident screening and tracking system currently in use, especially in rapid flight scenarios as witnessed here.


This once again demonstrates the inherent challenges involved and invites discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of placing greater emphasis on regional vs national response and preparedness. Was the chance for success here diminished at all absent a more condensed watch list reflecting a more region-centric framework? And would the entire process be quicker, more focused and involving a greater chance of success if streamlined or adapted so that prioritization occurs instantly on a focused geographic basis? Remember this was focused on someone fleeing quickly. And what does this say about efforts to employ, train and assign fulltime analysts? The federal officer highlighted was not in this category. This ABC News story raises numerous questions accordingly.

Comment by Dan O'Connor

May 10, 2010 @ 7:54 am

Unfortunately, universal hindsight is combined with the 24 hour news cycle and unrealistic expectations to create this “gotcha” reporting style. While titillating. this type of journalism and reporting is not assisting our efforts. The fact that he almost got away is on some levels, irrelevant. If we continue to move down this path of perfect information in present time, our risk aversion will only increase. Derived from the zero defect, litigious society we are now part of, it’s no wonder trust in leaders and from leaders erodes. Yes, said suspect almost got away, but he didn’t. In a system of systems, there are bound to be friction points. The easiest solution is to blame someone… To another point; the billions spent on surveillance does not prevent activity; it merely records it and within that captured data we found Shahzad switching out shirts. Two failed or botched attacks in the last 5 months. Is it better to be lucky or good? If our expectation is 100% detection,
100% prevention, and 100% capture, I’d submit that we will come up short.

Comment by John Comiskey

May 10, 2010 @ 8:24 am

Great term: intelligence collection-safeguarding society-prosecutorial discretion. Add to that: no-fail-safe terrorism-prevent-defense.

HLS pundits and media do not live in Teddy Roosevelt’s proverbial arena. Law enforcement operates with a level of risk and a multitude of complex and sometimes conflicting rules that are intended to prevent bad things from happening while ensuring the civil rights and privacy of the citizenry.
Terrorist make up their rules as they please.

HLS is not fanciful and does not occur in the abstract. It does not offer any guarantee. Government can do everything right and still everything can go wrong. In this instance a systems of checks did ultimately facilitate the capture of the terrorist. Lesson learned: no-fly lists need to be updated in real-time.

HLS has a lot of lessons to learn.

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 11, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

The blogs seem to have reached some conscensus on NSA collecting cell phone info transmitting to Great Britain who returned the favor (the info) to the US so that NSA could have plausible deniability on domestic collection. By the way the new head of DOD Cyber Command is coming from NSA getting his fourth star and guess where that Command (reporting to Stratgic Forces Command?) is located. Fort Meade. Ah to be near those wonderous NSA computers.

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