Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why Heads Should Roll

How courageous is Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, the father of terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab?

If, as it is argued, the Islamic world sees the War on Terror as a War on Islam, it must have been quite intimidating to walk into the U.S.
Embassy in Nigeria.

It must have been terrifying to walk to the front desk and ask to see the man in charge. It must have been a father's worst nightmare: not only to turn his son over to the authorities, but also to know that Guantanamo may have been in the boy's future.

Did Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, though a wealthy and respected banker, fear that he, too, might find himself on the business end of an American rifle? One does not casually discuss actionable information on terrorism with American officials and not expect a hard look and maybe a little roughing-up.

The White House Review of the Christmas Day terrorist attack reads like a game of Clue, in reverse. From the start, we knew the killer, we knew his location, and after sixty years of aircraft hijackings and Al Qaida's record, we had a pretty good idea of the weapon of choice. We even had a motive and a witness.

The White House blames Abdulmutallab's success on a failure to "connect the dots," but, in fact, the dots were already connected. There were no dots. We already had all the information necessary to shut down Abdulmutallab. No secret missions were in order. No covert bribes in cash-stuffed briefcases needed to change hands at disused bus stops. Delta operatives didn't have to to kick down doors, and there was no need to dust off the waterboard to draw out a name.

We knew everything.

In a press conference, President Obama said that our failure to stop the terrorist incident was "not the fault of a single individual or organization."

But that's not true. The minute Abdulmutallab's father walked into a U.S. Embassy with news that his son was a potential terrorist, the official in charge was duty-bound to see this through. Every scrap of paper and every byte of data on the suspect should have been called up and frozen. That's why we have embassies.

When the information was passed to the first special agent at the CIA, he or she was duty bound to see it through. When the information was passed to the first administrator at the National Counterterrorism Center, he or she, too, was duty bound to see it to the end.

Everyone who read the name "Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab" prior to December 25, 2009 should be reprimanded and fired.

The White House findings state that, "Mr. Abdulmutallab possessed a U.S. visa, but this fact was not correlated with the concerns of Mr. Abdulmutallab's father about Mr. Abdulmutallab's potential radicalization." It's an embarrassing sentence of bureaucratese in its own right, but more so when considered in context. The State Department didn't revoke Abdulmutallab's visa because an office clerk misspelled his name in a database.

Has no one in the intelligence community ever used Google? When "Abdulmutalab" was typed in, did the computer not ask, "Did you mean 'Abdulmutallab'?"

Another admission that crosses the threshold of bewildering into the realm of criminally negligent: the National Counterterrorism Center has a database of all known and suspected international terrorists. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was added to that database.

But that database does not feed directly into the TSA No-Fly List.

Who more than known terrorists belong on the No-Fly List? There should be no human involvement required here. One line of SQL database code could have averted disaster.

According to the White House, when the CIA and NCTC got the name of a radicalized militant from the militant's own father, and a warning that he was planning an attack, they did not search "all available databases to uncover additional derogatory information." How many databases are there? And how many terrorist databases must one appear in before he or she is considered a threat to U.S. national security?

This wasn't a ticking time bomb situation involving a lone wolf under the radar. Such a terrorist will succeed, and there's nothing we can do about it, aside from remaining vigilant. But the United States already knew about Abdulmutallab, and learned of his intentions on November 18th -- a month before he struck.

Most grating in the White House report is the repeated notion that Abdulmutallab's plot failed. It didn't. Nine years after 9/11, and after billions of spent dollars in needless security, confiscated fingernail clippers, and dumped breast milk, he succeeded in smuggling explosives onto an airliner destined for American soil. He succeeded in igniting the explosive. If not for dumb luck involving bad chemistry and a brave Dutch film director, there might today be a smoldering crater in Detroit.

After the attack, President Obama remained in Hawaii and enjoyed a Christmas vacation on the golf course. After the attack, National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter took a six-day skiing holiday. After the attack, CIA director Leon Panetta remained in beautiful Monterey, California. The nation, the administration claims, can be governed from afar, and that's probably true. But when terrorists attempt a major strike on U.S. soil, isn't it a good idea to have someone in the White House situation room above the rank of janitor?

When National Security Advisor James Jones warned that the White House review of the Christmas Day terrorist attack would bring "a certain shock," one expected to learn of political intrigue and a mishandling of delicate scraps of questionable intelligence. But rather, Mr. Jones must have been referring to the Obama administration's hubris in this matter, which is the most shocking revelation of all.

D.B. Grady is the author of Red Planet Noir.

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