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The right is trying to leverage the incident to discredit the security credentials of the Obama-Biden administration. The attempt would be more credible if this were 2012, or if the current administration had dramatically altered the security complex since it took office. But it is still early in the Obama era, and the system in place is a bipartisan arrangement inherited from well back in the Bush-Cheney years. The Umar Abdulmutallab affair is to a remarkable extent a repeat of the failed Richard Reid attempt back in 2001. All the more so because intelligence warnings about Reid were not addressed until too late. Same for the 9/11 plot. Ergo, when the right goes after Obama they are de facto going after their own boy. Nor is there reason to think that if McCain-Palin were in charge that events would have been different. The mainstream press has failed to better explain the continuity for better or worst of security policy and operations.


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The politically not particularly adept comments by Janet Napolitano have been taken out of context, she stated that they system worked in response to the event, not in preventing it. The mainstream press is again not better explaining this fact. In political terms the president should have been more out in front by Sunday, going on the air to explain that he had concerns that the bipartisan security system was not adequate and he would take action as more information became available. That it took Bush nearly a week to get around to mentioning the Reid attempt while enjoyed his winter solstice vacation exposes the hypocrisy of right wing critics of Obama, but it is no excuse for the current president who should always strive to do much better than the chronic slacker Bush.

If Obama and company are to be criticized it is for not reforming the obviously flawed security complex Bush-Cheney left behind. The question is how to reconfigure the system.

The proposal that the Abdulmutallab affair should lead to the wide use of whole body scanners sounds like a bad proposition. There are all too obvious ways to defeat them, and the terrorists will take the steps needed to do so if the machines come into widespread use. The limited protection they offer is not worth the virtual strip tease they inflict upon the average traveler.

Which brings us to the point that many conservatives who happily denounce big government worming its way into the lives of Americans seem to be OK with the same big government using X-rays to strip Americans naked on a regular basis. A number of Republicans have vigorously denounced body scanners for that reason, so reluctance to use the machines is bipartisan, it is not Democratic liberal thing.

Devices for sniffing explosives are potentially superior to body scanners, but from what I understand they are not sufficiently reliable, and are prone towards false positives.

It is pertinent that both Reid and Abdulmutallab were pathetic dolts. Neither was expert and/or composed enough to properly detonate their device. Abdulmutallab did not try to set of the explosion at the most opportune time, when the liner was under maximum structural stress flying at high speed and altitude over the ocean, far from a place to land if damaged. He may have balked at self-destruction, only working up the nerve when the flight was approaching its end and his lat chance was slipping away. If so he was not reliable. Important terror missions have been assigned to pathetic losers suffering from suicidal depression – in other words they are mentally unstable -- injuring the credibility and effectiveness of the supporting organizations. This suggests the responsible groups are being sloppy, or are finding it difficult to recruit skilled self killers who can be relied upon to know how to get the job done. These examples of ineptness may discourage some who would otherwise join the Islamic brand of terrorism.

Another really bad notion is profiling, especially of the ethnoreligious sort. What if Islamic terrorists recruit white converts to Islam with names like Smith or Jones? What if the attacker is a female ecoterrorist? Or a right wing Aryan militia member trying to match the deeds of the Islamic extremists? Nor is profiling for young people reliable, the conspirators may use older folks to get around that.  

What is needed is better intelligence, the ability to gather the pertinent information and then do something smart and effective about it kind. The nearly fatal flaw in the Bush/Obama system was the failure to take immediate action when the father of Abdulmutallab took the amazing (and profoundly decent) step of personally warning US officials that his son posed a danger. Such an extraordinary denouncement should have quickly led to Umar’s visa being suspended or revoked until he could present his case to American authorities if he wished to do so. Lacking a valid visa, Abdulmutallab would probably not have been assigned the mission, and would not have been able to carry it out it out if he had. It is becoming apparent that the intelligence sharing and coordination of the Bush-Cheney security complex is structurally defective. This is not surprising since the Repub administration was notoriously incompetent when it came to intelligence on so many levels, and a report back in April noted intelligence processing defects in the system they constructed. What is surprising and disappointing is that the new administration did not presume that everything they inherited from Bush-Cheney is suspect and probably needs an upgrade.

On a related subject, a relative of mine did a tour of duty in Afghanistan, aiding the Karzai government military. Himself a conservative, he is not optimistic about the long terms prospects in the impoverished, tribal nation, and thinks the Obama plan is at least more realistic than the more ambitious plans pushed by many Republicans and Joe Lieberman. He noted that even if Afghanistan-Pakistan is denied to Al-Qaeda they will pick up and move. This was on the 25th, before we knew that Abdulmutallab had been processed for his action through Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Yet again, it was during the Bush-Cheney years that Yemen went south.

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Originally posted to Gregory Paul on Thu Jan 21, 2010 at 07:53 AM PST.

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