Meeting the challenges of safeguarding nation

The Dec. 25 attempted terrorist attack reminded the nation that the fight against terrorists requires vigilance and infallibility. While those who seek to harm us need only succeed once, our defense against their efforts must be successful 100 percent of the time. Once again, the potential for harm was thwarted and tragedy averted — and for that we should all be thankful — but our gratitude for averting this harm must be matched with a continued commitment to making the nation more secure. The president’s preliminary review of the Flight 253 incident reveals a number of challenges in our national and homeland security system that need timely attention. Productive results require that leadership be in place to address these challenges.

As we enter a new year, we cannot ignore that the three Department of Homeland Security agencies that were at the epicenter of the Dec. 25 attempted attack — Customs and Border Protection, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, and Transportation Security Administration — are all without Senate-confirmed leaders. The Senate must put aside petty, political considerations and quickly act to approve these eminently qualified nominees.

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The president’s review revealed that timely information sharing continues to be one of the most difficult national and homeland security challenges. To address the stovepipes that hobbled our intelligence community prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress enacted a number of key reforms, including the creation of the Director of National Intelligence, that have improved information sharing. However, this incident underscores that more must be done. Specifically, we must cultivate an intelligence community that views our national security workers in the field such as State Department consular officers and federal air marshals — as our “boots on the ground” and critical contributors to and consumers of the intelligence. Our intelligence agencies must also move away from a culture of “need to know” to one of “need to share” to ensure that all departments that are part of the nation’s homeland and national defense systems can do their part in this ongoing effort.

The second critical challenge is with respect to our nation’s terrorist watchlisting process. Over the past few years, our oversight has identified a number of shortcomings of the “no fly list” — which is both too narrow (as evidenced by its omission of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab) and too broad (as evidenced by the misidentification of hundreds of innocent travelers —including some of my congressional colleagues). We have documented problems in the process for adding names to the list, the frequency and timeliness of additions and deletions, and the accuracy of information identifying travelers on the list. The intelligence community must work to do a far better job of ensuring that the appropriate individuals are placed on the right lists.  In the aftermath of this incident, the intelligence community must also resist the inclination to merely add more names to the no-fly list without having solid intelligence to back it up, as that would risk diffusing our focus from individuals who we know have the desire and ability to perpetrate an aviation terrorist attack.

The third challenging area is how we ensure that airport screening systems are fully effective, both domestic and abroad. From whole-body imaging to explosive detection systems, there have been great advancements in screening technologies since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Despite these advances we must recognize that no single technology is a silver bullet and able to detect all threats.  Though there is broad recognition that we need new technological solutions to ever-changing threats, the processes in place for testing and deploying promising technologies is not sufficiently nimble to get these technologies in the field in a timely manner.

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Another aspect of the technology challenge is how to work with our foreign partners to ensure that new technologies and procedures are adopted beyond our borders so that vulnerabilities are addressed throughout the aviation system. While many countries have already announced plans to adopt novel screening system, it is disappointing that some nations have not adopted stricter regulations. To be clear, we must have a smart, layered approach to aviation security. We must work everyday, in concert with our foreign partners, to ensure that our screening procedures are fully effective.

As I have said, these are among the most vexing security challenges that face the nation. Tackling them will not be easy but if we are to ever get the results we need, the administration, Congress, and American public must work together to address these problems in a timely and comprehensive manner.

Thompson is the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

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