THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Trouser Bomber Effect: Watching Government Cure Incompetence with Idiocy

We have all been drowning in ink and losing our collective eyesight with various media attempts over the holidays to explain how a young Nigerian whose own father had warned the US Embassy in Lagos about him just last month, was allowed to climb on a an airliner at Schiphol in the Netherlands, bound for the United States.

Would requiring passengers to stand on their heads belted "securely" in their seats for the last hour before arrival to make sure no blankets, books, computers, whatever, obscured a clear vision of their laps after a full body search manually and with X-ray equipment before boarding help discover the next Abdulmutullab in time? It isn't the terrorists who have created the morass of asinine travel restrictions. They are thoughtlessly piled on by CYA-schooled public servants willing to do anything but really seriously think about what they are doing. And, like Janet Napolitano, they stand ever ready to take credit for an accident as a direct result of their planning.

There is something about terrorism that seems to bring out the absolute worst in bureaucracy in attempting to match wits with terrorists as untoward events take place.

So far the only thinking reported that tries to analyze why the problem happened in the first place seems fixated on the list of 500,000 TIDE database on which Abdulmutullab's name joined last month because of his father's visits to the American Embassy in Lagos. A question has legitimately been raised over why he hadn't been promoted to a higher level of "no fly" lists. But that question never should have had to be raised.

The tragedy in the midst of this farce was that it was all so much easier. And the problem had nothing to do with any of the myriad of shinplaster grotesqueries we have come to expect from the Department of Homeland Security. Obama's statement "that all appropriate measures be taken to increase security for air travel" is totally beside the point.

It is really simple, the American Embassy in Lagos, Nigeria screwed up bigtime. Even a minor consular officer like a grade 6 Foreign Service Officer can understand that, even if no one in the press or the Obama Administration seems to. Unfortunately it appears no minor consular officer ever got their hands on this in Lagos. This screw up was handled by the big guys at the Embassy.

Once a credible person of the stature of Abdulmutullab's father, multimillionaire Umaru Mutullab, one of the most important figures in banking in all of Africa, contacted the Embassy and said he feared his son had been "radicalized," the Embassy should have immediately reviewed the young man's American multiple entry visa granted to him by the American Embassy in London in 2008 and placed a hold on it pending a hearing. But that's not what happened. According to the Department of State, Umaru had a face to face meeting at the request of high officials in Nigerian Security with top American embassy officials on November 19th. And the records at State show what did happen.

The Department of State did a cursory derogatory information sweep on Abdulmutullab on November 20th and found nothing. Then on November 23rd The Department of State referred the matter to the Department of Justice which concluded with his being added to the TIDE database. There is no evidence that any attempt was made to contact British authorities where the young man had lived in a 4 million pound flat while on a student visa to the UK. His American visa had been issued in London. If they had, they might have learned the British had already pulled Abdulmutullab's visa last May.

Apparently no one ever considered the easiest, simplest step to review the multiple entry visa and associated travel records to see if something had changed that might lend credence to the father's concern.

The visa is not an automatic right for a foreign citizen. An American entry visa is a privilege granted under certain circumstances. Requiring a hearing to consider the new information doesn't require making a final judgment. Maybe this charge was just an outgrowth of some family feud. It simply ensures that new information is analyzed before access is continued. If rumors of Abdulmutullab's trips to Yemen and other terrorist hot spots are true, the evidence for them might have surfaced during the visa review.

The British government, for reasons of its own, denied Abdulmutullab re-entry in May of this year. The announced reason was that he had interrupted his education in the UK and the school he now intended to attend was not considered "legitimate." Clearly, whatever the reason, the British Foreign Ministry was doing its job.

Incompetent State Department consular officials and poor enforcement of visa procedures that have been in place long before the personal computer, the Xerox machine or even the jet airliner are the problem here. And we aren't hearing a word about it.

Better the American public should be forced to endure another blizzard of press releases announcing another round of ridiculous indignities by dazzling Rube Goldberg technology rather than have our press and our government demand an accounting from the employees at a government bureaucracy who can't even comply with their own time-tested procedures.


Thomas Lipscomb
is a fellow of the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future (USC)