Obama to fix Security Flaws; but Could he Please Fix Stupid Racial Profiling?

President Obama spoke firmly and with some smoldering anger on Tuesday about the failure of US intelligence to ‘connect the dots’ of information it had in hand about how dangerous Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the attempted airline bomber, had become.

AP has video:

I think two things could help fix the intelligence failure. One is just better software. If you had fields for Nigeria and Yemen it should be easy enough to have a program flag two such entries as possibly related. The other is better community sensitivity training for field officers. For Umar Mutallab to turn his son into the CIA was a big thing; families protect their own in that part of the world. If the field agent knew Hausa and more African culture he would have realized the seriousness of the situation.

The truly W.-level stupid thing Obama is doing is singling out passengers from specific countries.

The only good thing about this asinine new Obama administration order that persons from or traveling through 14 countries would be subject to extra pat-downs and inspections of carry-on luggage is that in all likelihood it mostly will not be implemented. The list includes: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen.

You can’t catch terrorists by casting a broad net. You catch terrorists with good police work. You look at networks, suspicious behavior, clues. Ignoring the desperate plea of a father who goes to the CIA with information about his son being radicalized in Yemen, but then patting down 170 million Nigerians ever after, is brain dead.

The principle of putting out such a list is stupid enough. Doesn’t it signal to al-Qaeda that the next bomber should be from Chad or Bangladesh? But it isn’t even a good list. One justification for it according to the TSA is that these countries are state sponsors of terrorism or have an active al-Qaeda movement. But there have been no plots against US airliners by Syrian Baathists (secular Arab nationalists, the ruling party), nor will there be. States don’t commit that kind of terror, since it can be traced back to them– it has a ‘return address’. Mostly this is just a list of countries that won’t toe the US line on Middle East policy. But then a US ally like Saudi Arabi is added in, along with Lebanon, which has a Christian president and waged a concerted campaign against a small ‘al-Qaeda’ cell at the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian camp (probably not actually related to Usamah Bin Laden), and wiped it out. And Nigeria? It wouldn’t have been on the list a month ago. Few countries of northwest Africa don’t have some Muslims, if that is the point of the list, and all communities have some hotheads.

I ask myself why? I don’t like the list and would not want it expanded. But note that Egypt isn’t on it (they have heard of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Muhammad Amir al-Atta, haven’t they?) I suspect that is because a) Egypt wouldn’t put up with it and gives the US lots of military and intelligence aid and b) the tourist traffic to Egypt is so enormous that searching everybody coming back from Luxor would paralyze air transport.

Moreover, if you want a list of terrorist groups that have actually harmed US targets, check this one out and pay attention to whether they’ve attacked the US. I’d say Chile and Greece would be on the list.

The new administration list is arbitrary. It is racist, since it ignores countries with anti-US terrorist groups that are European or European-heritage. We had racist immigration laws from 1924 to 1965, when Martin Luther King’s movement shamed us into abolishing them. Obama of all people should not be moving back in that direction.

It would tire and tax airport inspectors if implemented, making them less alert.

The administration also seems not to have noticed that the US does not inspect passengers boarding in Europe to come to the US, and it is not clear that the Europeans will be willing to implement these procedures.

Finally, there are lots of reasons for which you don’t want to make it unpleasant for these people to visit the United States, or for Americans to travel back and forth to them. Several are major oil countries, and we want them investing in, and doing business with the United States. You might have noticed that our economy isn’t doing well and we have high unemployment, and attracting foreign investment should be a high priority. One theory for why Egypt suddenly had respectable growth rates in the past decade is that Gulf investors found it so unpleasant to come to the US that they invested in Egypt instead.

Moreover, there are substantial groups of influential alumni of US universities in these countries, some serving in governments. The US benefits from this form of soft power. We don’t want to discourage these nationals from studying here, since we lose future influence. In fact, if Umar Farouq Abdulmuttalab had studied in the US, he might not have been radicalized.

Aljazeera English has a good discussion of all this, including Asad AbuKhalil, which informed my comments above.

P.S. Sometimes these things are best punctured with humor. See Stephen Colbert’s parody of those who demand profiling (h/t HuffPo:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Ideal or No Deal
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Economy

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16 Responses

  1. As a Nigerian i find parts of you post bizarre. What part of the world isn't family taken seriously as opposed to "in that part of the world"? The Bush's, the Kennedy's, the Rothschild's, in your part of the world also "protect their own" do they not? Or are you implying that in darkest Africa protecting your family would also involve allowing criminality and terrorism?

    What does speaking hausa have to do with anything in this particular case? Umar Mutallab was the head of a Nigerian "first generation" bank, an incredibly prestigious position, I don't think he had a problem communicating his thoughts to officials at the US embassy, after he was directed there by Nigerian security officials, in Abuja.

    His son was brainwashed in Togo, the UK, and Yemen, he hardly spent anytime in Nigeria, so again what does being fluent in the Hausa language and culture have to do with this particular case?

    The boy was acting like a kook, the father knew this and informed the Nigerian authorities who directed Umar Mutallab to the Americans, the Brits knew this, the Yemenis, and the US all knew and failed to connect the dots. Your resort to dodgy social psychology is unnecessary in this regard.

  2. You have presented an excellent analysis, well informed as always. I came by here after watching the Al Jazeera piece. You put the big picture back together for me.

  3. The fact is, the reason why Umar Adbul-Mutalib was able to get away was because the security processes already in place were not followed. How is it that these new racist policies, will help with security if other 'clearer' security breaches are not dealt with.

    More than anything this is all showboating by the administration to make us think that something is actually being done…

  4. Your comments are timely and necessary. I liked the "W-level stupid" most. That phrase needs to become standard, along with "Cheney-level evil" or perhaps contracted to Chevil.

    Here are a few suggestions for nations and other places to be placed on terror watch lists:

    Ireland – Chock full of bombers and also the ancestral homeland of O'Reilly, Hannity and a slew of child molestors.

    England – Wasn't the shoe bomber from England?

    Scotland – That jet that blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland a few decades back, how do we know the Scots didn't shoot it out of the sky?

    Japan – Terrorists there use nerve gas. Japan is notorious for unprovoked, sneak attacks.

    Tuvalu – No real reason, it's just fun to say "Tuvalu." (W-level stupid reasoning)

    Columbia – They have cocaine there. Cocaine equals violence.

    Columbus, Georgia – Sounds a like like Columbia. Besides, there is an inordinate quantity of ordnance in the region, a sure sign of terror.

    Chicago – One word: Blogoyavich (sp?). 'nuf said.

    The Vatican – Women there attack helpless old men in funny hats.

    Germany – Have you ever seen any Eurotrash videos? Truly a deranged species.

    Norway – One word: Lutefisk. 'nuf said.

  5. Good points, and I'm glad you distinguished between "profiling" and "racial profiling." As you say, racial (and national, and religious) profiling is not only offensive, it doesn't work. Profiling based on things like buying a one-way ticket with cash, two days before the trip, is effective, as is looking at where the individual has traveled recently.

  6. ref : “The new administration [profiling] list is arbitrary… racist imho The most bizarre aspect of "The Country List" is that it's public. The second strange thing is this implication that "The List" is static. Why publicize it? And why not make it = the allocation of security resources dynamic, flexible, adaptive? It is weird, Juan; having "The List" stated such as this is tantamount to a FIXED FORTIFICATION, as in some kind of Maginot Line delusion. So in addition to "The List" being arbitrary and unnecessarily controversial ~ i daresay, insulting ~ imho we could rightly say that the idea itself is archaic in light of well-known history writ. Undesirable and ultimately unworkable as ‘security policy’, i think we should refuse to take it seriously as such and instead view "The List" as being ‘security politics’… in other words: "The List" is a defensive political narrative response to criticism of a recently breached, unresponsive security policy.

  7. Your mention of the impact of increased security on international trade is important and insufficiently covered by US media because it isn't nice news. A few reports nearly two years ago catalogued the negative impact that US security measures were having THEN. Included were lists of international business meetings sited elsewhere than the US, when the US had been the previous site, and reduced pleasure travel to the US. A new host of onorous and ineffective measures is likely to increase that tendency. The depressant economic effect on US manufacturing of airliners–one sector where the US is still a manufacturing leader–is also important. Paranoid US policy has continued to dovetail nicely with Bin Laden's public plan to isolate and bleed dry the US. And as you note, the other key elements are steadily increasing "security" costs combined with continuing glaring security weaknesses.

  8. Professor Cole,

    I will take issue with one thing. Bloggers should generally stick with their area of expertise. You obviously know a tremendous amount about, say, the politics and history of Iraq. A computer science professor you are not.

    "If you had fields for Nigeria and Yemen it should be easy enough to have a program flag two such entries as possibly related."

    Yeah, do you think so?

    Have you ever tried to move your contact information between your mobile phone and your computer? That generally works tolerably well, these days, with a new computer and phone which follow a standard that has been worked out over several years. Yet the notes you have associated with your contacts aren't likely to transfer to your phone. You may still get duplicate records that you have to handle manually. And this is a highly constrained problem using new equipment.

    Now consider all the legacy databases running at different government agencies, some on mainframes. They may be decades old, both because "if it ain't broke don't fix it" and because "we spent $500 million on a new system, but it didn't work, so we went back to the old system." (See the failure of the FBI to replace their case tracking software.)

    So one database doesn't even have the word "Nigeria" in it but a record called "country code". Another has the word, but in the third field of a record called "location". A third database uses latitude and longitude and looks up the country name on the fly when you query (actually a better system as borders shift and names change).

    The first system uses ASCII to encode the data, the second uses Latin-1 and the third uses UTF-16. And two of them are encrypted, using different methods.

    And you're not just dealing with bits and bytes but with what those bits and bytes mean, i.e. semantics.

    The problem of synchronization of disparate data sources is hard, very hard.

    If you do manage to synchronize and merge your data sources, then you have to mine your data for meaning. Data mining is a whole subspecialty in computer science.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg of the technical issues involved.

    The most charitable interpretation of your remark that this is "easy" (and I do try to follow the principle of charity when debating), is that it is both flippant and uninformed.

  9. "But there have been no plots against US airliners by Syrian Baathists (secular Arab nationalists, the ruling party), nor will there be. States don't commit that kind of terror, since it can be traced back to them– it has a 'return address'."

    I'd qualify these two statements, but otherwise a good post.

  10. You can huff and puff all you want … but the truth is, this makes a lot of sense politically. Obama is covering the right cheek of his ass, which may give him cover with some of those swing voters who seem to be abandoning the Democrats in droves.

  11. IMHO, putting Cuba on this list is insane. We have given refuge to a terrorist that Cuba desperately would like to have. What a great country this is!!!

  12. As someone who has been working in the Muslim world much of my career, agree with your analysis. Re: Egypt, in addition to the security relationship and the millions of tourists (most of whom are not American) there is also the volatile and delicate relationship with the Gaza border and both North and South Sinai.

  13. If al Qaeda was using the Christmas 09 event the same way it used 9/11, namely to leverage a few meager resources to do serious structural harm to the US, it has succeeded.

    As amply commented, Obama's 14 nation strategy will do great harm to US interests, and provide less security than we had prior.

    Ben Laden has climbed right into our nervous system with his very small collection of electrodes, aka airline bombers. He figured that our self destructive paranoia needed a little boost, and it wouldn't hurt if Obama ended up tying himself in a knot. And, of course, ben Laden knew that the mass media and the fire breathing partisans would do their best to increase his leverage enormously.

    Why is it so easy for al Qaeda to connect our dots, and so hard for us to connect theirs?

  14. Hasan, you miss the Professor's point, I think. It is a fact that people who study in the US tend to view it more favorably or at least with more understanding, although exceptions like Sayyid Qutb abound.

    It's also true that studying in China, or Russia, or in Europe has similar effects. Although related, how well these societies integrate visitors is a different issue.

    Who can dispute that American hatred of foreigners, especially Muslims, is hurting the Unitted States economically and culturally, as Juan argues? Hatred often hurts itself.

  15. Mr. Cole,

    that little "incident" of the Lebanese Government "jumping" on an alledged Al Quida cell, was actually a case of the Lebanese Army and Security Fortces jumping all over a US-Saudi funded and trained "counterbalance" to Hezbuallah, that kinda went "rogue", we are assured.

  16. As an American, I agree with post #1, Nigerian, taking issue with the statement that families protect their own "in that part of the world" — what the fact… the fact is, families protect their own in every part of the world, obviously, and for the author to write a couple graphs down, "You can't catch terrorists by casting a broad net" is laughable.

    How ironic that a blogger calls for better technology to solve a global political and sociological issue when in fact the blog demonstrates the failure of human intelligence — aka an editor.

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