excerpt from my book on technology, terrorism, and
DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to
read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the categories on the
right labeled "Excerpts from the book." I'm afraid I can't fix the bug
in TypePad that prevents me from putting them in the category in
reverse-chronological order, but I have started putting chapters up in
pdf form from time to time.) Comments and factual quibbles
are welcome, either in the comments section or by email:
firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're dying to order the book, send
mail to the same address.
But it wasn’t just our European allies who let us down. Our own government made plenty of errors as well. Abdulmutallab went on to study in Dubai and then Yemen, where he made the transition from radicalism to terrorism. He cut ties to his father, saying that he had found the true Islam and that “You should just forget about me, I’m never coming back.” Alarmed, the father contacted the US embassy in Nigeria just five weeks before the attack, warning officials of his son’s extreme views and presence in Yemen. In the end, he was interviewed by both consular officials and CIA officers, who prepared reports on the conversation but did not revoke Abdulmutallab’s visa – perhaps because of an error in spelling his name.
They did enter Abdulmutallab’s name into a lookout system in case he sought a visa in the future. Information on the Nigerian was also added to a 550,000-name classified database on terrorism suspects. But the information was not deemed sufficient to add Abdulmutallab to the formal Terrorist Screening Data Base, with its 400,000 names – let alone to the much smaller and more selective lists used to screen air passengers, the 4,000-name no-fly list or the 16,000-name list of “selectees” who are always screened with care before being allowed on a plane. One reason for this decision was a failure to connect Abdulmutallab to a separate stream of intelligence suggesting that al Qaeda’s Yemeni arm was planning attacks, perhaps involving a Nigerian operative.
Despite all these failures,
our border security system seems to have worked. The Transportation Security Agency, which
screens air passengers, had no clue that Abdulmutallab was a risky traveler,
and so it did nothing special as he boarded flight 253. In contrast, Customs and Border Protection,
the agency responsible for screening travelers at the border, had access to
both the 400,000-name TSDB and the State Department’s consular databases. It also very likely had information about
Abdulmutallab’s lack of baggage and his cash ticket purchase, both of which
should have been included in his travel reservation data. According to press reports, this information
had already led CBP to flag Abdulmutallab for secondary screening when the
flight landed in Detroit. There, border
agents could have inspected his passport and asked about his travel to