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Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft

Posted: December 28, 2009 06:19 PM

Homeland Security, Watch Lists and Terrorists-in-Plain-Sight; Obama Confronts the Audacity of Bureaucracy

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Remember those panicked, anything-is-possible days after September 11th? The U.S. Army actually corralled big-name Hollywood directors and screenwriters -- including the writers of Die Hard and McGyver -- to "conjure up possible scenarios for future assaults."

Remember how the 9/11 Commission pointedly described the attacks as a "failure of imagination" -- meaning that all the dots were there, waiting to be connected -- and it was a particularly institutionalized form of blinkered stupidity woven deep, deep into the unyielding fabric of our governmental agencies, that permitted the attacks.

The events of Christmas day show us that the same inherent flaws exist, and if anything, they are even more manifest.

After all, we had more personal information and specific warnings about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab than we had about Mohamed Atta and his band of destructivists. We had his father's worried alert and we had all the boldly italicized post-9/11 signals: no luggage, a one-way ticket paid in cash.

That means there were two missed opportunities to keep off him the plane.

Opportunity #1: They could have moved the suspect from the watch list to the no-fly list days before he left Lagos, based on his father's report, and based on the fact that the UK had barred him entry. Am I wrong, or are we supposed to share these tidbits with our friends?

Opportunity #2: They could have connected his one-way, all-cash ticket to his appearance on the watch list once he was ready to board.

These two misses are the first non-partisan signal we've had for a long time: Dot-connecting failures, like sex-scandals, transcend party lines.

The Obama administration and its head of Homeland Security, Janet "The System Worked" Napolitano, had a year to review policies and procedures, starting with the most important vulnerabilities, like who gets on a plane and who doesn't.

God knows what they were paying attention to, but it certainly doesn't take the imaginative epiphanies of Hollywood scenario-schemers to contemplate that one day, someone might try to utilize an explosive-filled vessel strapped to their body, and a triggering syringe. Seems pretty in-the-box to me.

And you'd think that a president who hired the country's first CTO, would pick up the phone to Sergey Brin and Larry Page and says boys, we need some help in creating some terrorist-nabbing algorithms, because if one of the 500,000 potential evil-doers on our watch list start to act strangely, we need to know about it.

The media makes a big deal about a measly 500,000 people on the watch list; hey Google searches billions of data records every day.

Meanwhile anyone who's flown in the last year can tell you that there has been no change at all from the dysfunctional Bush-era TSA: the same debatably sentient screeners, the same vigorous pat-downs of patently jihad-free grandmas, the same experience with liquids that were mistakenly packed in carry-on baggage emerging undetected, the same security theater performed for a listless and unconvinced audience.

If a new CEO gets hired by Toy R Us, and in a year the service is equally disinterested and ineffectual, then it's the CEOs fault.

What the president is facing is the brutal reality of shaping and executing policy in a day-to-day real world environment. (No comment on what this government failure says about Washington's ability to run health care.)

Obama's movement, and everything it stood for, was powerful and inclusive enough to capture our national imagination, take down the vaunted Clinton political machine, and defeat a war hero.

But it has obviously proved to be no match for the grinding, implacable resistance of broken systems and knuckle-headed policies. My hunch is that he over-delegated, over-trusted, and under-questioned; that's unlike him, and I'm sure he's pissed.

The audacity of hope has been kicked in the crotch by the audacity of bureaucracy.

 

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