On Christmas night at my parents’ home in Caribou, I glanced at my Blackberry and found missed telephone calls from the Department of Homeland Security and urgent messages from my staff. I called the Department and was briefed on the near-terrorist attack on Flight 523 as it began to land in Detroit. During the past year, I had been troubled by the surge of home-grown terrorist plots, including the massacre at Fort Hood, and by the increasing strength of Al Qaeda in Yemen where I had travelled in August. This Christmas Day attempt to murder airline passengers ended a year during which our nation saw repeated and concerted attempts by Islamist extremists to kill Americans.
A mere fluke — a mistake by the young terrorist aboard that plane or a failed detonator — prevented him from blowing up the explosives that he had hidden in his clothing. That error and the quick action of courageous passengers spared the lives of some 300 passengers flying from Amsterdam to Detroit.
But that wasn’t the first error in this sobering story. Intelligence systems and security safeguards failed at virtually every stage, allowing Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to evade passenger screening systems and board a plane at the airport in Amsterdam.
Had Abdulmutallab been able to carry out his mission, the aircraft would have been blown apart in the sky, making it the largest terror attack on American soil since September 11, 2001.
We dodged a bullet and evaded a disaster of monumental proportions that day. We were lucky on Christmas.
But we all know that luck can run out.
As Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, I have joined with Chairman Joe Lieberman in scheduling the first in a series of hearings to determine how to improve our nation’s security in light of that near-attack.
On January 20, the Committee will hear from three key witnesses: Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence; and Michael Leiter, National Counterterrorism Center Director.
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and enactment of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act in 2004, much has been done to improve the performance of our intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement agencies.
Before the reforms of 2004, which I authored with Senator Lieberman, what folks in Washington call “stovepipes” helped prevent security information from being shared across intelligence agencies.
What are stovepipes? Imagine hundreds of separate channels of information, each filled with critical security information, but none of them being connected to one another. Keeping the information bottled up in these isolated channels precluded data-sharing and prevented us from “connecting the dots” that may have averted the terror attacks of 9/11.
The reforms of 2004 were designed to dismantle those stovepipes and to increase the inter-agency sharing of intelligence information and collaboration. And indeed, that has occurred. As a direct result of these 2004 reforms, scores of terrorist plots, aimed at America and at targets abroad, have been thwarted.
Still, further work remains. As the Christmas Day plot proved again, terrorists fiercely committed to the destruction of America change their tactics continuously, hoping to find a crack in our systems of detection and protection.
As a result, our efforts to detect and disrupt attacks must be nimble and ongoing. We must be committed to continuously improving our systems and strengthening our defenses.
Consider the most obvious and fundamental error in handling Abdulmutallab’s case. His own father reported him to the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria, voicing concern about his son’s troubling Islamist extremist connections in Yemen. When a father takes such extreme action about his own son, red flags should have been raised.
At that point, the State Department should have revoked Abdulmutallab’s visa. Period. If that had happened, Abdulmutallab would not have been able to board the Detroit-bound flight in the first place.
The State Department had this authority. In fact, we strengthened this authority in the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 by specifically exempting consular decisions to revoke visas from being second-guessed by a lawsuit. But the State Department did not act.
That tells me that despite the vast improvements in information sharing, human error, poor judgments, and inadequate computer systems can still cause unacceptable gaps in our security. We need to update the internal systems and processes that are really relics from the days before reform. We need to ensure that the right information gets into the hands of those who can take action, on the spot, to prevent an attack.
Our risk-based security structure depends on effective collection, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence, and officials must be empowered to take actions to help keep us safe. They must be empowered and entrusted to revoke visas, require additional screening, or prohibit travel as needed for our safety. Our systems and protocols must support this objective.
This remains a work in progress.
We did not choose this war. It was thrust upon us by terrorists whose only mission in life is to destroy – not to build, not to create, not to further humanity. We must continue to build upon the intelligence reforms we have already put in place. We must do everything in our power to make our strong systems even better.