Rising Above the Noise Level

Aftermath of the Pants Bomber — to be fair to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, when she said the “system worked” she was referring to emergency systems, not airport security systems.

Obviously, somewhere, “the system” did not function. President Obama’s first reaction was to order an investigation into airport security gaps. This was sensible.

The other “system” that did not seem to function was intelligence. Sean Rayment of The Telegraph asks,

How can a Muslim student, whose name appears on a US law enforcement database, be granted a visa to travel to America, allegedly acquire an explosive device from Yemen, a country awash with al-Qaeda terrorists, and avoid detection from the world’s most sophisticated spy agencies?

The answer appears in an article in today’s Washington Post:

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father in Nigeria reported concern over his son’s “radicalization” to the U.S. Embassy there last month, intelligence officials in the United States deemed the information insufficient to pursue. The young man’s name was added to the half-million entries in a computer database in McLean and largely forgotten.

The lack of attention was not unusual, according to U.S. intelligence officials, who said that thousands of similar bits of information flow into the National Counterterrorism Center each week from around the world. Only those that indicate a specific threat, or add to an existing body of knowledge about an individual, are passed along for further investigation and possible posting on airline and border watch lists.

“It’s got to be something that causes the information to sort of rise out of the noise level, because there is just so much out there,” one intelligence official said.

Later in the article —

“What happened after this man’s father called our embassy in Nigeria?” Lieberman asked. “What happened to that information? Was there follow-up to try to determine where this suspect was?”

White House officials struggled to explain the complicated system of centralized terrorist data and watch lists, stressing that they were put in place years ago by the Bush administration.

One suspects that system will need to be overhauled before it can be made useful. It would be just like the Bushies to concoct a system that brought together every shred of incriminating evidence on everybody on the planet, but fail to provide a way to sort, prioritize or use any of it.

I read somewhere that the type of explosive the Pants Bomber attempted to use would have been detected by a bomb-sniffing dog. More bomb-sniffing dogs, less war, say I. (All I want to know is — since the Shoe Bomber, we’ve had to take off our shoes to get through airport security. Now will we have to take off our pants?)

Update: See also “Crotch-Bomber Fails to Blow Up Plane, in Yet Another Disaster for Obama” in the Village Voice.

Update: OK, this is just stupid. A rightie blogger writes,

Citizens understand this. Thus when passengers smelled the smoke Abdulmutallab created while trying to carry out his attack, they jumped him, subdued him, and dragged him to the front of the plane. As Fox News reported on December 26, 2009:

Experts say an aggressive response from passengers has become the common response [to attempted terror attacks] since … 9/11.

But where is Obama’s “aggressive response”? What do average everyday citizens know that he doesn’t?

Um, the average everyday citizens were close enough to smell the smoke, and the President wasn’t? So the POTUS is supposed to put on his superhero tights and cape and fly to the plane to subdue the bad guy?

A lot of us didn’t notice with everything else going on, but a few days ago the United States launched cruise missile against alleged al Qaeda sites in Yemen, on President Obama’s orders. This ABC News story is from December 18:

On orders from President Barack Obama, the U.S. military launched cruise missiles early Thursday against two suspected al-Qaeda sites in Yemen, administration officials told ABC News in a report broadcast on ABC World News with Charles Gibson.

One of the targeted sites was a suspected al Qaeda training camp north of the capitol, Sanaa, and the second target was a location where officials said “an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned.”

The Pants Bomb Plot originated in Yemen, I understand. Perhaps it was al Qaeda’s attempt at retaliation. So it appears the President knows something that average everyday citizens don’t. Of course, wingnuts won’t be satisfied with anything less than an invasion, especially one they can watch on the TeeVee.

42 thoughts on “Rising Above the Noise Level

  1. I would like to know if it is the mess of public/private entities that make up the current state dept./fbi/cia contributed to our system not working. The british denied this vile idiot a visa…yet we did. How do the british communicate with us? Specifically, how many bush no bid contract co. did the british denial have to go thru before we could deny this vile idiot a visa?

  2. Well, when you have 1 million+ people on the “No Fly” list, what’s one more name?
    Under Bush, Rocky and Bullwinkle were on the list because they occasionally questioned authority, but Boris and Natasha were allowed on, carrying smoking bombs, because their “Fearless Leader” was a supporter of Bush, America’s “Fearless Leader.”
    At least we have someone competent in office right now. I’m sure he’s off now, but if Bush was still President, Ted Kennedy would still be on the list, even though he’s been dead for months.
    Do we need to fix this system. Hell yes! But please, please, don’t ask Neo-con’s and Republican’s for suggestions. I don’t want to sit there, butt-naked, on my next flight, after having gone through a cavity probe. What will I tip the steward/stewardess with? OK, get your mind out of the gutter! Besides, that would be a small tip…

  3. I foresee a possible niche in the airline market … Nudist Air! No need to take oiff shoes or pants for checking if you aren’t wearing any in the first place…


  4. TSA as usual has a knee jerk response to this later incident – force passengers to stay seated for one hour before landing, and nothing in their laps, one carryon. Well gee whiz – IF the nut had tried to set off the bomb 2 hours before landing … and what has the number of carryon bags to do with the fact that he hid the explosives in his underwear?
    The failure was in Europe – not in the states but as usual US passengers in the states will pay for this with more stupid rules that make flying even more of a burden.
    Terrorists ! , US citizens 0 –
    Time to get rid of the Bush administration rules and think through what is really needed to make us safe – and it is NOT taking off shoes and being strapped in our seats for one hour before landing.

  5. Forget the crotch sniffing dog.. bring former Sen. Larry Craig out of retirement and give him a job sniffing male crotches for airport security..He already shown a superior talent for airport related crotch work.

  6. This is GREAT news for high speed rail – (even if it IS socialist)

    Authorities introduced a second layer of security at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. On Monday morning, every U.S.-bound passenger was subjected to a pat down and their luggage was inspected by hand. It took about three hours for travelers to get through the checks.

    On one Air Canada flight from Toronto to New York’s La Guardia Airport the crew told passengers before departure that in addition to remaining in their seats for the duration of one-hour flight, they were not allowed to use any electronic devices—even iPods—or their own headphones. The crew also told passengers that they would not be able to access their personal belongings because of the “enhanced security procedures.”

  7. Swami,
    The problem is that Craig won’t stop at just sniffing.
    “No! NO! No licking!!! Bad Senator. Bad Senator… SIT!”
    And think of how many female terrorist’s will be able to get through. Maybe we can put some of the C-Street hound-dogs to handle sniffing them. If we can pry them away from kissing their Lobbyist’s asses, that is.

  8. He had the visa since before his father got him put on the list.–in 2008. In other words, he didn’t reapply for the visa and there was no moment when he would have been flagged.


  9. Buried in the NY times story about this was the revelation that Amsterdam airport has 15 machines that use millimeter wave screening, which might have detected the explosives on the terrorist. This is followed by the statement that these machines are prohibited from being used on passengers bound for the U.S., “for a reason she did not explain.” Wouldn’t a real journalist want to uncover that reason? It seems to me that, amid all the incendiary chatter and bloviation about visas and recriminations from Republicans, there lies unexplored a potentially useful piece of information that could have a material affect on passenger security. How did this prohibition come to pass? I suspect it’s a privacy-related issue, but let’s find out.

  10. The “Bush Leaguers” were all about making the haystack bigger and not about coming up with a better way to find the needle.

  11. We’ll all have to “go commando” as it is called when you have no clean underwear and thus set out for the day “free and easy”, so to speak!

    The lack of coordination of information is so Katrina-esque! Wonder who’s doing “a heckuva job” now! I fly two or three times a year, and I am not terribly impressed by the security I see, because four or five determined people together could still make trouble on a plane, even if they could not cause a crash. I suspect that weapon parts scattered among several carry-ons could make it on board. I think the best security is the fellow passengers being willing to put themselves forward to stop anyone who tries anything. I always board with that intention.

    That said, I am more impressed by the security today than I was shortly after 9-11. I flew six weeks or so after that, and the batteries were dead in the wand that was to be waved over us. In fact, according to conversation I overheard among the personnel, the batteries were dead the night before, and no one had replaced them overnight. We were just kabukied through as though we had been checked. Two weeks later, I passed by that same security station. It was manned by an obese older woman in a chair on the side away from the carryon inspection, utterly intent on her cheesburger.

    Am I the only person who read the HuffPo account from a lawyer on the flight who reported seeing the “crotchrocket” fellow accompanied by a sharp-dressed man doing a Sudanese act to get on board without documentation? Was that for real? If so, it exposes a real weakness.

    In a large airport where hordes pass through hourly, I am amazed anything gets checked. I just figure it is always safer than driving or the stock market.

  12. Oh look – Israeli Senator Yosef Lieberman was on Faux Nooz yesterday talking about the crotch bomber. At one point he says something to the effect “We’ve got to constantly be thinking like the terrorists here.” I’m afraid that the reich wing members of the Christian Taliban – (I’m thinking tea bag brigade members and the like.) – have no problem whatsoever doing this. Lucky thing for Yemen they’re almost out of oil.


  13. Obama gave an order to launch cruise missiles into Yemen.
    Obama has just lost this supporter.
    I’m done with this nonsense.

  14. With LArry CrAig as our dog sniffing dog
    you’d need security to be set up like a men’s
    room stall. Hate to think what the wand is.

  15. Why would anyone possibly want to retaliate against a cruise missile? Compared to what our military can do, a cruise missile isn’t even a sparkler on July 4th – it’s the match used to light it. What did it kill? What? Another 30 people like they all do? Big deal…
    When will we understand that whether it’s 1, 3, 30 or 300 killed, this is our version of terror? Yes, I’m saying that WE Americans are terrorist’s. Raining down weapons indiscriminantly on civilian populations is the very definiton of terror, no matter how “good” the information was that there were “enemies” there.
    There is no such thing as a surgical strike. It’s a strike. If you’re lucky and survive, the surgery is what follows. Every cruise missile strike is a recruiting tool for the people we wanted to kill in the first place.
    How did a country this [email protected]#$ing stupid come to be so technologically advanced? Just bad luck for the rest of the world, I guess…

  16. So where is cheney and his spawn? I thought they would have been on fox yesterday drunk with all their hate and fear about how Obama not keeping us safe. You know rolling in the gutter.

  17. I am going to speculate that the possibility of a terrorist attack in Obama’s first term was considered and discussed in advance. Not wild speculation – OK? The objective for Obama was and is to make sure that an incident does not derail progress in the region. I’m sure it’s also a priority that an incident – successful or failed – not derail a second term. (An incident for a conservative POTUS is no problem – you just invade somebody – somebody with oil.)

    Obama has spoken directly to Islam – ‘We are not at war with you.’ That’s been huge IMO in tamping down the rage from the moderate Muslims, and hurt recruiting efforts of radicals.

    Keeping the US in Afghanistan has been unpopular with Democrats, but may prove to be Obama’s best defense in 2012 if the next attempt is successful. That’s cynical – but war and politics tend to be that way.

    I disagree with detention without trial. IMO – Obama knows it’s a violation of international law BUT – if any Gitmo graduate is recruited to participate in an attack – if Obama released him – that’s the election in 2012. And the terrorists KNOW the propaganda value of a Gitmo grad – the terrorists would love President Palin. The jihad is stalling under Obama.

    IMO a lot is being done – and not done -on the assumption sometime in the next 3 years, somebody might succeed in a strike and the administration has to look like they were doing the right thing. The result of this posturing has sometimes been to do the WRONG thing (detainees & some rendition) to prevent an attack on the US from turning an election.

    This is my opinion and neither a defense of nor an attack on President Obama.

  18. Doug Hughes is spot on as always. Speaking broadly I’m befuddled by this whole terrorism nonsense. The Brits during the IRA bombings just had to sit through it and remained calm and relaxed, it was just a part of life. Whenever some jackass tries something here in the states the country goes ballistic. We can’t do anything about terrorism, ideas can’t be killed! I wish a pol would be honest and tell us that.

  19. CUND Gulag – Usually I agree with you. I don’t get your post, this time. If we have hard data that radical fundamentalists are meeting to plan violence against civilians – what the hell are we supposed to do? Send them a Hallmark card? My question – phrased as it is – unfairly presumes we have reliable intel. Suppose for argument that that’s true. What is the response YOU think appropriate?

  20. The predictable response from the dimwitted teabaggers is to profile. All Arabs should be on the no fly list. Yes that will work our “intelligence” agencies can’t manage the list now, lets add a couple billion more names of every Arab in the world.

  21. @ Crazy for Urban Planning. Monsters under the bed. Fear is a great motivator and the GOP plays that card so often I’m surprised when they use any other, such as distortion of facts, outright fabrication, and any number of sleazy tactics they tend to use since the only important thing is that “THEY GET THEIR COUNTRY BACK!” Until the GOP once again controls both houses of congress and the Whitehouse I’m afraid we’re going to hear more of the same. Main stream media seems more than content to go along for the ride, whatever boosts their ratings.

  22. Seriously, it may seem daunting as an intellectual exercise to figure out how to stop every single bombing of an airliner, but as a practical matter, the American public is never going to accept tolerance combined with useless half-measures as a reasonable response to this threat.

    Clearly, there are plenty of things that can be tried before we run up the white flag and declare that jumbo jets are fair game for terrorists, so “travel at your own risk.” How about we divert a couple billion dollars or so on getting a bunch of those “millimeter wave” machines they’re using in Amsterdam?

    I’m not well versed in the history of the British conflict with the IRA, but I don’t imagine there’s much of a parallel there with the U.S.’s “troubles” with Islamic terrorists. The British could eventually come to terms with the IRA’s supporters because those supporters shared the same essential values. Both sides wanted to raise their kids in a peaceful world, enjoy material prosperity, etc. Both sides were rational actors and could see that, at some point, the cost of warring exceeded the costs of making peace. Islamic extremists can’t be counted on to compromise their objectives in the interests of peace. To the contrary, their objective IS to make war — on all us infidels. You can either convert to Islam and join their cause or you can resist. But resistance means drawing lines, such as a line to prevent Islamic terrorists from bringing bombs onto airliners. If you’re prepared to tolerate bombs on airplanes today, what will stop you from tolerating bombs on subways and buses tomorrow?

  23. @ Crazy: “Whenever some jackass tries something here in the states the country goes ballistic.”

    Personally, I’m happy to live in a time and place where people go ballistic over the wanton destruction of innocent life. It wasn’t so long ago that America tolerated the lynching of hundreds (?) of innocent men a year, considered it a fact of life (at least in the deep south) and certainly considered the problem insoluble, if they considered it a problem at all. Thankfully, we’ve progressed enough as a nation that if a single lynching occurred today, the whole country would react in complete horror and revulsion.

    The same sense of horror and revulsion should ensue if and when Islamic terrorists succeed in blowing up an airliner containing a couple hundred innocent travelers. Those future victims of terrorism are no less deserving of our outrage than a victim of a lynching a hundred years ago.

  24. Doug,
    Maybe I went too far. But it’s the “reliable” in reliable intellegence that I have a problem with. How man 2nd or 3rd in commands have we killed? Were they really, how do we know? And at what cost in “collateral damage?”
    I know cruise missiles save the lives of our soldiers. But is this the way we should be policing those countries? Because that’s what we’re doing – policing. And for whom? Usually some oil-sodden monarch, or corrupt drug-dealing politician “voted” into office whom their own people HATE! And our job has been to prop up those hidious regimes at all costs, with OUR blood and treasure.
    And do we police that way at home? Do we cut loose a missile here on the rumour that someone bad may be meeting someone else who’s worse down your block? Why is this country playing “Whack-a-mole” all around the world? My point is that when we rain down death and destruction, we create more terrorist’s than we destroy. Are these people seriously a threat to the US here? Christ, they’re barely a threat there. The threat to us is continues support in those countries leaders. But, until we come up with an alternative energy source, there’s money to be made bombing the shit out of black and brown people. “‘Rally ’round the flag, boy’s’ and cut loose another missile. I hear rumour there’s a number two in that house on the hill. Yeah, the one next to the wedding party.”
    I’m just tired of the violence and death. The world, at one time, may have looked at us as the cure. Now, they realize we’re not the cure. We’re the fucking carrier.

  25. Swami, I usually agree with you, but I don’t think the Iran incident, as tragic and stupid as it was, is comparable to a terrorist act.

  26. CB, I’m not so sure there is no parallel between the Irish troubles and Mid-eastern terrorism. On the surface it would appear that religion is responsible for the conflict in North Ireland, and it would appear that religion is to blame for conflicts in the Middle-East. But the actual source of the problem, in both cases, is good ol’ economics. It’s hard to convince a fat and happy citizenry to take up arms on the basis of religion alone. It takes some serious inequities and injustices to get the pot bubbling; religion only stirs it. Well . . . most of the time, anyway.

  27. How about we divert a couple billion dollars or so on getting a bunch of those “millimeter wave” machines they’re using in Amsterdam?

    Except per news reports, they’re NOT using them in Amsterdam, not on passengers bound for the U.S. (See brucek’s comment above.) “And why the hell not?” is just one question I’d think our government might have for the Dutch, who have ultimate control over security procedures at their own airports, after all. I get the sense from all the screaming on the Right and in the middle that Obama is now considered responsible for security failures at every airport, everywhere in the world.

  28. Those future victims of terrorism are no less deserving of our outrage….

    Wow, that’s a bizarre notion. To experience outrage over something that hasn’t happened and may never happen is, well, batshit craziness and a waste of life. Rage leads to mistakes, and has nothing to do with taking reasonable, unbiased precautions. Likewise, there’s no excuse for being selectively blind to the murderous violence of “Christian” organizations and individuals in this country, whose sole purpose (as with any type of extremist, by definition) is to force their culture of extremity on everyone else. To anticipate outrage without actual cause, and to selectively deny history and current events, are simply signs of intellectual and moral laziness.

  29. Re millimeter wave machines: they are called “terahertz” machines, and also called “electronic strip-search”. Basically they’re for seeing you naked. Do you want bored security-theater guards exchanging naked photos of your mom, your sister and your daughter? How long until those photos show up on the Internet? I’d prefer the dogs.

    My view? Simple: look at the numbers. Plane bombers caught by security-theater guards: zero. Plane bombers caught by fellow passengers: two. Price of security-theater security: millions. Price of fellow-passenger security: zero. Service-to-price ratio for security theater: zero. Service-to-price ratio for passenger security: infinity.

  30. Lynne …I know it was a stretch for me to make that comment, but I put myself in Iranian shoes when I made it.. The point I was trying to make is that I think it is wrong to even begin to address the subject of terrorism from the standpoint of being the totally innocent victim as a nation. I just think if we really want to deal with stopping terrorism then we should focus on the cause of it ( not they hate our freedoms) and acknowledge our role in bringing about our current situation involving terrorism.

  31. Re millimeter wave machines…. Basically they’re for seeing you naked.

    Good lord, so a bunch of physics nerds somewhere perfected “X-Ray Specs” that actually work? Gah!

    I know some people are deathly afraid of dogs, and I must say if it were snakes that could be used to detect dangerous chemicals on a person, I’d be vehemently agin it, but I agree with paradoctor: sniffer dogs are preferable to what those machines actually do.

  32. @joanr: Perhaps it will becalm you if I clarify that future victims of terrorism WILL BE deserving of our outrage, that is, when they BECOME victims of terrorism. I thought that was implied, but thanks for the opportunity to make myself more clear.

    As for being “selectively blind to the murderous violence of “Christian” organizations and individuals in this country, whose sole purpose . . . is to force their culture of extremity on everyone else,” I’m not why this comment is directed at me. What group(s) fitting that description do you accuse me of being blind to?

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