The Big Question: Did ‘the system work’ ?

Some of the nation’s top political commentators, legislators and intellectuals
offer some insight into the biggest question burning up the blogosphere today.

Today’s question:

Did “the system work” to stop the Christmas terror attack, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano initially claimed?

John F. McManus, president
of The John Birch Society, said:

No, the system didn’t work as
claimed by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.  The quick action
by a few passengers is what worked.  What needs to be said here, and has
already been stated by others, is that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s own father
had warned authorities about the extremist views of his son.  Had this
warning been properly acted upon, the name of the accused terrorist would have
added to no-fly lists. That he purchased his one-way ticket with cash and had
no luggage should have further alerted authorities.  This man evidently
became radicalized, not in his home country of Nigeria, but in London where his
parents had sent him for schooling.  What happened to him in London calls
to mind what has happened to many American parents who sent their offspring off
to prestigious American universities and found them becoming, not terrorist
suicide bombers, but extreme leftists willing to work to undo the American
system. As these parents have discovered, that practice hasn’t worked very well

A.B. Stoddard, Associate Editor of The Hill, said:

The Obama administration’s response to a foiled terrorist incident that could have taken hundreds of lives is laughable. It took a day for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to take back her statement — echoed by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Sunday shows — that the system worked. It “worked” when a passenger had to subdue a terrorist and put out a fire intended to kill everyone aboard because our “system” had allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to board a one-way plane without luggage, bound for the United States with his intact US-issued visa, despite his father warning authorities that his son had been radicalized and posed a potential danger.
The arguments over the use of our available, existing technology that can detect the same plastic explosive Richard Reid used in 2001 — the House voted this summer to prevent scanners from being used for primary screening ” — distract from the real issues of threat assessment highlighted by this frightening episode. What criteria is used to determine potential threats? What is the threshold for “derogatory information” that would move someone like Abdulmutallab from the TIDE (Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment) list to the no-fly list or at least to a list of people requiring extra screening?
The Obama administration must answer the pertinent questions and do so as soon as possible, holiday or no holiday. If the administration has been working closely with the Yemeni government to try to contain the growth of Al Qaeda in Yemen, then President Obama should not allow leaks to the New York Times to speak for him, he should tell Americans exactly what he is doing to make sure we are kept safe on his watch. If the Homeland Security policies that permitted this incident are left over from the Bush administration, then new ones need to replace them.
Democrats should be aware that this incident poses very real political problems for their party, should the American public view the administration’s response insufficient or inadequate. This is the first time Democrats have governed in the post-911 age of terrorism and this is their first test. The response thus far is more than disappointing.

Ron Walters, professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, said:

Obviously the system did not work, which puts a glaring focus on what constitutes the system.  If the warning from the terrorist’s father was sufficient to cause him to be put on the Watch List but the information was not thought to be specific enough to put in him on the No-fly list, then what is the criteria by which one list informs the other?  I’m sure this will be the subject of the congressional investigations that will occur, but it strikes  me that if the Watch List has over 500,000 names on it, it has not been processed to be the valid tool that is meant to inform the No-fly list in this or any other case.

Hal Lewis, professor at UC Santa Barbara, said:

No, it failed and the passengers took over—as in the ill-fated United flight in 2001.  The system is doomed to fail as long as the airport inspectors are forced to treat everyone alike, so we have the spectacle of old ladies being forced to take off their shoes, while young thugs breeze through. The Muslim terrorists (and that’s what our enemies are) would love to attack an Israeli flight, but don’t, and it’s helpful to ask why. The Israelis don’t hesitate to discriminate—they know they’re in a war, while we don’t. On top of that, the airport inspectors are not the sharpest knives in the drawer—it’s not a great career.

Peter Navarro, professor of Economics and Public Policy at UC Irvine, said:

Hell no.  The system didn’t work at all.  While the terrorist didn’t blow up the plane, he did successfully slow down the entire international network of aircraft, heaping delays upon indignities at a critical holiday peak.  No wonder airline stocks fell.  We need to totally rethink our system of airport security. 

Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said:

Just about all the relevant points have been made by others. But with due respect to the distinguished commentators, the best job has been done by humorist Andy Borowitz at The good news is that Homeland Security will be (1) issuing mandatory terrorist identity cards (for a fee of $25), (2) requiring that both parents report a suspected terrorist (not just one), and (3) cracking down further on shampoo. The brilliance of the new ban on in-flight bathroom use is captured by Borowitz: “One thing every terrorist has in common is that they eventually need to pee.” You can’t argue with this kind of logic, which increasingly has defined the whole horrible flying experience under the post-9-11 security regimen.

It’s time for the world’s scientists to get together and work out the kinks in those individual jet-pack flying machines. Alternatively, they could try to invent Star Trek-style teleporters. These solutions are as sound as the losing effort to stay one step ahead of the globe’s millions of terrorists, extremists, and nutcases.

Justin Raimondo, editorial director of, said:

Yes — in Bizarro World, where up is down, right is left, and a “system” supposedly designed to protect us instead breaks down completely and leaves passengers on a plane utterly defenseless.

What universe is this woman living in? I’ll tell you — it’s the world of Washington, D.C., where the main occupation appears to be covering your own a[–]. How she could sit there and say that with a straight face reveals an iron will: too bad she didn’t apply that will to actually doing her job.

Consider: the passengers on that plane were left completely on their own: no air marshalls were on board. Also consider that the would-be terrorist got on the plane without a passport (according to a passenger on the flight, one Kurt Haskell), and in spite of the fact that his own father had personally gone to our CIA and the US Embassy to warn them about his son’s activities, and that he presented a risk.

We’re fighting a war in two countries, simultaneously, on the dubious grounds that we are combatting “terrorism” — and yet the terrorists apparently have no problem getting into this country. We’re protecting the Afghan-Pakistani border from incursions by the Taliban– but our own borders continue to be among the most porous in the world.

Brad Delong, professor of Economics at the UC Berkley, said:

Yes, the “system” worked. Here, I think, the person to listen to is security expert Bruce Schneier, who says:

Counterterrorism in the airport is a show designed to make people feel better. Only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.”

In this case, it was a sharp-eyed and alert passenger who was the “system” that “worked.”

Christopher Farrell, director of
Investigations for Judicial Watch, said:

As I type this, Napolitano has now admitted that “the system” failed utterly. Good. Finally.

Short of announcing his intentions to U.S. Consular officers, airport and security personnel — and then conducting a demonstration of how he intended to blow-up the Delta jet — one wonders what else Mr. Abdulmutallab could have done or been to insure he never boarded that flight. This instance demonstrates that much of “the system” is a bluff — a publicity stunt meant to “demonstrate” security awareness to a largely innocent and gullible public. It’s a “Rube Goldberg device” that harasses the general public into (falsely) believeing they are safe. When the terrorists don’t cooperate with our game of airport “security” charades it’s quite embarassing. How many lists does one have to be on before you’re not allowed to: get a US visa, buy a ticket, get past the check-in ticket counter, “security” screening, and the gate agent. Perhaps we’ve reached a fatigued — even exhausted — state of “security awareness”? Maybe we’re numb?

Maybe after eight years we’ll get our lists straight?

Brent White, professor of Law at the University of Arizona, said:

I think that Napolitano has clarified her statement and admits that the system failed. Let’s just hope that Homeland Security backs off the ridiculous rule that passengers not be allowed to get out of their seats or have anything in their laps for the last hour of international flights to the US. Why is it that every new incident results in some new inane rule that does not in fact make us safer, but makes airline travel an even more miserable experience?

Cheri Jacobus, Pundits Blog contributor, said

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab may have boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 without a passport, according to a witness who was also passenger. His own father was alarmed enough by the rapid radicalization of his own son to alert the authorities six months ago that his son was likely a terrorist and could be a danger. He was placed on a terrorist watch list

The only reason the terrorist plot failed was because of poor workmanship of the explosive, and the bravery, brawn and luck of a handful of passengers who apprehended the Abdulmutallab.

Passengers on the plane succeeded. But make no mistake about it — the “system” failed. And any attempt by President Obama and his Administration to spin this situation otherwise amounts to one of Barack Obama’s most significant failures in office to date — a list that appears to be growing longer almost daily.

Bernie Quigley, Pundits Blog contributor, said:

The system worked in exposing the incompetence of Napolitano just as Copenhagen worked in exposing the incompetence of the Secretary of State and other Obama appointees. Both of these episodes expose the weakness, insecurity and uncertainty of the United States and the Obama administration in particular as we enter the new world in the new century. These new problems come from the application of party favorites and “rock stars” to critical posts rather than professionals. The Bush administration brought the country overnight to a new global situation. It was a radical departure but a necessary one fostered by 9/11. Certainly there were mistakes and over-reactions. But Americans have adjusted to it and they should have it figured out by now. The Democrats could have, should have, improved and modified. By sending party favorites to key positions they sent the signal that they did not hold these issues — global terrorism and global power relationships — as priorities.

Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University, said:

No, the attack was thwarted due to a combination of incompetence on the part of the terrorist(s) and a heroic response by passengers. Napolitano’s statement is preposterous. But the criticisms of the Obama Administration for failing to take action based on the warnings of the attacker’s father about his son’s radicalization are ridiculous. The government cannot be expected to take action against everyone it receives some vague warning about. Nor should it. The basic problem here was the failure to detect the explosives that were evidently hidden on the attacker. However, the actions being taken now–such as making passengers stay seated during the final hour of international flights–are ridiculous. So is the hysteria and 24/7 news coverage that this incident is receiving. This was not a major al Qaeda operation. Let’s not blow its significance out of proportion.

Glenn Reynolds, from Instapundit, said:

No, the system failed, allowing a watch-listed terrorist about whom we had been specifically warned to board a plane while carrying explosives that should have been detected. Only luck — and the action of passengers, who as usual are being treated badly by TSA — averted a disaster with hundreds of bodies.

Even more troubling is the report that he was allowed to board without a passport after some sort of official intervention. The entire affair calls for an in-depth independent investigation, but Janet Napolitano’s response suggests we’ll get a whitewash instead. Her clueless response, and the Administration’s overall tone-deafness, suggests that we’re stuck back in a 1990s style of dealing with terror.

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