By J. Taylor Rushing - 05/08/10 10:00 AM EDT
A second straight close call in a domestic terrorism incident this week
brought a single mass message to the Obama administration from Senate
Democrats and Republicans: Fix the system. Again.
Both Democratic and Republican senators spent the week alternately lauding Monday night’s arrest of Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad from a plane at New York’s JFK Airport bound for Dubai — and condemning the fact that Shahzad had been allowed on board a plane that had already left the gate.
The ultimatum to Obama: Shahzad’s arrest won’t bring new legislation, but it had better bring changes within the executive branch.
“We’ve got to be damn careful that by no means have our efforts in Afghanistan or other places like Pakistan worked yet,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) “We have to increase our diligence. There’s been a couple of these things more than we would have liked.”
There are several different “watchlists” that the government operates, starting with the biggest — the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) list, which holds more than a half-million names. From there, there are three other lists of decreasing size, ending in the 4,000-name “no-fly list.”
There is no enthusiasm among senators for new legislation, or tinkering with the lists, or for simply designating all names on the lists with a “no-fly” status. Indeed, several noted that the different lists allow for different categories and degrees of suspects.
Shahzad was allowed on board a plane that had already pulled away from the gate because he was added to the “no-fly” list within a 12-hour window during which airlines are supposed to check their passenger lists with federal authorities. That brought an instant fix this week — airlines must now check the “no-fly” list every two hours.
In December, Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was arrested only after an unsuccessful bombing attempt aboard a plane from Amsterdam to Detroit. He was on the TIDE list, but not the actual “no-fly” list. And poor communication among agencies had allowed Abdulmutallab to keep his visa even though his father had warned U.S. authorities about his son.
Several senators noted that prominent problems with the “no-fly” list in particular stretched well back into the George W. Bush administration. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was detained five times at East Coast airports in 2004 because the alias “T. Kennedy” was being used by someone else. It took three weeks for federal officials to fix the problem. In March 2006, reports emerged that Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, a former ambassador for the Taliban, had traveled into the U.S. to enroll at Yale University, somehow eluding any “no-fly” status.
“I’ve been on a no-fly list for the last few months, because there’s somebody with a similar name as me,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). “No system is perfect. I just hope there’s an after-action, where there’s corrective action taken. I don’t know that we can ever get it perfect, but I hope we can keep learning from these.”
It fell to Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday to defend the administration’s hit-and-miss record. Testifying before an appropriations subcommittee, Holder accepted some of the criticism but repeatedly noted that Shahzad’s plane never took off and the suspect was caught.
That wasn’t good enough for Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who wondered why the reforms Obama ordered after the Abdulmutallab case in December still weren’t in place.
“We’re really grouchy about the watchlist,” Mikulski told Holder. “Once again, the watchlist seemed to be dysfunctional. Who’s in charge of watching the watchlist?”
“It’s like nails on a blackboard. It gets us all charged up as we talk about it,” added Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
Republicans were careful in their criticism this week, joining
Democrats in praising the relatively quick arrest of Shahzad but also
warning that weaknesses remain.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Accountability Committee, said part of the problem is a mindset at agencies like the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security.
“The focus has been on people coming into our country, rather than people leaving,” Collins noted. “The terrorists are constantly identifying vulnerabilities, weaknesses and gaps in our security systems and that’s why it’s so critical that we learn from each case and try to envision the rest.”
One Republican who didn’t join the criticism was John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama’s 2008 presidential rival, who said overall he found little fault with the administration’s handling of Shahzad’s arrest.
“I know they lost him at one point and all that, but overall it took 53 hours and the result was one we can be pleased with,” McCain said.
Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said foreign terrorists seem to have started recruiting “clean” subjects like Shahzad and Abdulmutallab who won’t arouse much suspicion and are actually educated in the U.S.
“These are American citizens living here and going to school here, and then they leave the country to be trained,” Feinstein said. “One to Yemen. One to Pakistan. How do you screen for that and still protect everybody’s rights to privacy? These terrorists are smart. They think they’ve found a soft chink in our armor, with these 'lone wolves.' And it wouldn’t surprise me if there aren’t more in the country right now.”