Body scan isn't only way to find a bomb

Posted: Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Sixteen days before an al-Qaida trained Nigerian with explosives in his underwear boarded a Detroit-bound plane, the director of terrorist screening crowed about the "true information success" of U.S. watch- listing.

"An excellent example of interagency information sharing," Timothy Healy told a Senate committee.

These days Healy is eating those words as he tries to figure out how clues given to U.S., Nigerian and British authorities about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's apparent slide into terrorism didn't subject him to at least more careful screening.

That's why we need airport scanning devices that capture every crevice and every bulge in every body, some argue. Already they're in limited use here and abroad, including Amsterdam, where Abdulmutallab boarded. But airport officials there weren't using the scans on U.S.-bound passengers at the request of U.S. officials who worried about the privacy of Americans.

In reality, the cost and implausibility of installing full body scanners at every port of entry around the world make this impractical. And that's if people can get over their privacy concerns or if modifications make the machines less graphic.

No, what this country needs is focused screening of the population most likely to terrorize the United States, meaning Muslims. Bad idea. Even if you disregard constitutional and moral qualms about harassing a group of people because of their religion, the truth is that ethnic profiling is ineffective and counter-productive.

Mostly innocents populate the target group, and plenty of terrorists-in-training exist outside it.

Besides, good intelligence requires cooperation from the very people profiling-advocates would target. If you treat everyone within the group as enemy agents, they aren't going to be your friends.

It's worth remembering that the best information the United States received about Abdulmutallab came from his father, who had become alarmed by his son's extreme religious views and disappearance into Yemen.

Targeting for close watch those groups that train people to attack the United States is what's required, whether driven by religious fervor or not.

Before spending billions on more sophisticated airport screeners, before approving government surveillance based on religion or nationality, look at what the United States already has in place. Ask why it didn't stop Abdulmutallab from boarding Northwest 253 in Amsterdam wearing explosives between his legs.

What you'll find is the same thing discovered in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001: Crucial information wasn't given the attention or the distribution it deserved within government agencies.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation in Minneapolis knew in August 2001 that a foreign national had been attending flight school but showed no interest in landing the giant jets he was learning to fly. French authorities confirmed Zacarias Moussaoui's links to radical Islamic groups and to Osama bin Laden, who by then had declared war on the United States.

So while U.S. officials detained Moussaoui on an immigration violation, they didn't push the investigation further to see whether a larger plot was afoot. No one connected that information to other intelligence pointing to a possible attack using commercial jetliners.

Ah, but that was then. Since 2001, U.S. intelligence operations have had a consciousness-raising and have been ordered to join hands and share information to prevent another attack. In 2004 the government combined its disparate watch lists into one superlist, overseen by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, which Healy directs.

Vast improvement resulted. I have no doubt lives have been saved as a result. And yet ...

An internal FBI report last May found disturbing lapses. Fifteen percent of the subjects of terrorism investigations never were put on the watch list as they were supposed to be, according to the agency's inspector general.

That's the big list naming about 400,000 people for whom authorities have at least some information indicating terrorist leanings. As more solid evidence emerges, or as one piece of intelligence is linked to another, the FBI compiles sub-groups for additional airport screening. In the worst cases, individuals are put on the no-fly list - about 4,000 currently.

The inspector general found that while 15 percent of investigative subjects were omitted completely from the list, 80 percent were added belatedly. That is, agents took longer than guidelines required to add the names to the list.

And when agents received new information, usually they never got around to modifying the list accordingly. If no one adds a new dot, how can it be connected to the old one?

Worse yet, the audit said that people had been entering the United States whose names matched subjects that were supposed to have been watch-listed but weren't.

So when Abdulmutallab boarded the flight to Detroit without so much as a round of questioning, "There was a mix of human and systemic failures that contributed to this potential catastrophic breach of security," as President Barack Obama put it last week.

Operating without information that clearly pointed to Abdulmutallab's plan, government officials failed to link the bits of information that did come their way, John Brennan, Obama's deputy national security adviser said on NBC and ABC programs Sunday.

The Central Intelligence Agency knew in August that an unnamed Nigerian was being readied for a terrorist attack. In November, Abdulmutallab's father contacted U.S. embassy officials in Nigeria to report his son's disappearance and apparent shift toward radicalism.

At that point, the CIA added the 23-year-old's name to the watch list, which isn't shared with other countries. If the U.S. and England had been comparing notes, someone might have noticed that the same Nigerian appeared on both.

Then there is the question of why no airline personnel thought it odd that a man would book an international round trip carrying only a back pack. At the least, that should have led to more questioning.

No fancy equipment needed. No ethnic profiling.

Then we might have had what Healy called a "true information success."

• Ann Woolner is a Bloomberg News columnist.

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