January 8, 2009

How Could This Happen?
by Adm. James M. Loy

In the eight years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States has fundamentally restructured its security capabilities. We created the new Department of Homeland Security, and tripled homeland security funding. We restructured our intelligence agencies under a new Director of National Intelligence. We created a new Transportation Security Administra­tion to protect commercial aviation and our other transportation networks, and established a new National Counterterrorism Center to track terrorist threats. We reorganized the Justice Department and the FBI to focus on preventing terrorism, and enacted the PATRIOT Act to break down barriers between our law enforcement and intelligence agencies. We doubled the number of border patrol agents; created new systems to detect counterfeit travel documents; established new systems to pre-screen cargo entering the country and protect critical infrastructure; created intelligence fusion centers in 48 states; expanded our stockpiles of drugs and vaccines; and established new programs to protect major metropolitan areas from biological, nuclear, or radiological attacks.

Together, these steps amount to the most sweeping reorganization of the federal government in half a century. Yet, despite all these changes, on Christmas Day an al Qaeda terrorist managed to penetrate our defenses and nearly blow up a passenger plane carrying hundreds of people over Detroit. And in the wake of this incident, many Americans are rightly asking: How could this happen?

As President Obama correctly stated, “a mix of human and systemic failures” was to blame. There needs to be a thorough investigation, and full accountability. We need new answers to key questions raised by this event: Why didn’t the explosive detection systems find the eight ounces of PETN the terrorist was carrying in his underwear? Why didn’t the warning his father gave our embassy in Abuja make it to the airport security officials on the ground in Nigeria and Amsterdam, who could have used it to deny him boarding? Why didn’t we connect the dots?

As we seek answers to such questions, we also need to confront another reality: No matter how much we improve our defenses, we will never have perfect security – because every time we adapt to meet the changing threat, the enemy adapts as well.

Consider the record of the past eight years: After terrorists armed with box cutters hijacked planes on 9/11, the United States took steps to prevent a similar attack – hardening cockpit doors, increasing the number of air marshals, allowing pilots to carry weapons, and improving training for air crews. Yet just a few months later, al Qaeda had adapted to these new security measures, sending a terrorist, Richard Reid, to try and blow up a plane using a bomb hidden in his shoe.

In response, we took action to stop another shoe bomb attack (which is why eight years later passengers still have to take off their shoes at our airports). Al Qaeda adapted again, and in 2006, they attempted to blow up not one, but seven planes taking off from London’s Heathrow airport – this time using liquid explosives hidden in sports drinks. In response we again enhanced our security measures – including limiting passengers to no more than three ounces of liquid in their carry-on luggage.

Now, al Qaeda has adapted once more – this time sending a terrorist with a syringe and explosives sewn into his underwear, which he attempted to set off under a blanket as his plane circled for landing. Within hours, the transportation security system responded, instituting new screening procedures and issuing orders for air crews to remove all blankets and pillows during the last stages of every flight.

Based on this history, we can be certain of one thing: Al Qaeda will adapt again, changing its tactics in ways that are difficult to anticipate so it can circumvent our defenses. We face a thinking enemy, as creative as they are ruthless. And Americans must accept the fact that there will never be a moment when we have “fixed” all the holes in our defenses – or a day when the Secretary of Homeland Security can walk into the Oval Office and inform the President that America is secure, at last.

What we can and must do is learn from this incident. One important lesson is that complacency can kill. In a few weeks the headlines about this attack will disappear – just as they did after the 2006 London plot, and other failed terrorist attacks – and we will go back to our regular lives. But we cannot adequately protect the country by bouncing from event to event. Homeland security requires a sustained focus when terror is not on the front pages – so we can ensure it never reaches them.

Another lesson is that while we have changed the structures needed to protect our country, changing our culture is a much harder task. For decades during the Cold War, access to intelligence was highly restricted, and decisions on whether to pass on information were based on a “need to know.” Today, we must operate on the basis of a “need to share” – pushing intelligence out the door to more consumers rather than holding it back for a small circle of officials. As we saw last week, this is still counterintuitive to our intelligence community. Breaking down systemic barriers to intelligence sharing is one thing; getting human beings who did things one way for decades to do them another is a much harder task.

We can all be grateful that, thanks to the courage of the passengers on Northwest flight 253, al Qaeda’s Christmas Day attack did not succeed. Now we must seize this opportunity to learn and adjust, and prepare for the next attack. As we do, we must recognize that when it comes to homeland security, there are no silver bullets – and while our commercial airways are dramatically more secure, we will never regain the false sense of security we enjoyed on September 10, 2001.

Admiral James M. Loy is Senior Counselor at The Cohen Group. He served from 2002-2003 as the first Administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, and from 2003-2005 as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security.