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A Search for Answers After Attempted Attack on U.S. Flight

December 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In the wake of an attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit, Gwen Ifill speaks with a panel of terror experts about the state of U.S. counter-terror efforts and airline security.

GWEN IFILL: So, it’s easy to see why many questions remain about the Christmas Day terrorism attempt.

We will explore a few of them now with Larry Johnson. He served as deputy director of the State Department’s Counterterrorism Office in the early 1990s, and he now runs his own security consulting company. Douglas Laird, a former security director at Northwest Airlines, he, too, is now a consultant specializing in aviation security. And Juan Carlos Zarate served as deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009. He’s now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Gentlemen, welcome to you all.

Douglas Laird, the question we all are wondering is, how come this man wasn’t caught?

DOUGLAS LAIRD, president, Laird & Associates: Well, it’s very simple.

He wasn’t caught because the screeners are not provided with the technology that would enable them to find this fellow. It’s as simple as that. There are a number of other things that went wrong. And I’m certainly hoping what the president said is correct and that there will be a top-to-bottom investigation, because there’s been some real serious errors made here.

GWEN IFILL: You say they weren’t provided with the technology. Does that technology exist?

DOUGLAS LAIRD: Yes, it does.

And what we’re talking about is backscatter X-ray, is the most prominent. It’s being tested by the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration. And what it does, basically, is shows what is on the surface of the body and in your pockets.

I have heard some disturbing news on the blogs — and I’m not sure it is correct — but that the TSA had banned the Dutch authorities from using body scanning technology at Schiphol Airport. If this is true, that — is someone needs to look really seriously at how that happened.

GWEN IFILL: That airport in Amsterdam.

So, you are saying that what…


GWEN IFILL: … we have in place now, the screening process, is just not adequate?

DOUGLAS LAIRD: Oh, totally inadequate.

You know, I heard on the lead-in that they were now doing checks at the gate. Unless you do a very intrusive pat-down, i.e., you have to feel parts of the body where people don’t like to be touched — that’s where people would hide the explosives — unless they do a proper search — I would call it a police search — it — the same event could happen tomorrow.

GWEN IFILL: Larry Johnson, we have heard some description of how the man planned to pull this off, an explosive that was somehow concealed on his body that he attempted to ignite. What do we know about that substance?

LARRY JOHNSON, former U.S. State Department counterterrorism official: Not a lot right now. I think the initial report of PETN, but I think, as it goes on, you’re going to find that there’s another explosive called TATP, triacetone triperoxide, which has been a hallmark, a signature explosive used by al-Qaida.

Ramzi Yousef first used it in December of ’94, when he blew — put a bomb on board an Air Philippines plane. That blew up. Richard Reid had it in his shoe bomb that also included PETN. That didn’t blow up. And now we have this guy.

What is interesting, we have these events, always in December. They are few and far between. And what we have seen with al-Qaida is that, fortunately, they have not improved their capability in coming up with a reliable detonator.

GWEN IFILL: Well, but…

LARRY JOHNSON: Because you can’t just set it on fire and hope it goes off. Usually, PETN, if you set it on fire, normally, you have to shock it, step on it, or contain it for it to explode that way.

GWEN IFILL: You say al-Qaida has not improved its capability, but it is not — it doesn’t sound like we have improved our capability to detect it. Or have we?

LARRY JOHNSON: Well, we have improved our capability in some areas. You know, at least now we have professionals in TSA at security checkpoints. Before, we were using the equivalent of McDonald’s workers. We now check — all checked baggage gets subjected to an investigation by C.T. technology that can detect explosives.

But Doug is exactly right. When it comes to the kinds of components that Ramzi Yousef took on board a plane in 1994, successfully built a bomb, you can do that today. You could put in those quart bags that you are allowed to take on, which can have three ounces, you can get six of those in a quart bag.

You can put one pound, three ounces worth of liquid or two ounces of liquid explosive in that bag, take it on board. The detonator Ramzi Yousef used was guncotton. It was a cellulose material treated with nitroglycerine. He used a little light bulb from a dashboard and a D-cell battery. That was enough. Sparked it, detonated it, it blew up.

That could be done today. And, unfortunately, they have not deployed the type of — there are two types of explosive detection systems, trace and bulk. They have not been deployed with any kind of systematic purpose to — to prevent these kinds of incidents. So, it is possible.

GWEN IFILL: So, nothing has changed since these previous two attempts?

LARRY JOHNSON: Correct, not on that. In fact, we have had, since 1994, went through the Clinton administration, went through the Bush administration, now one year into the Obama administration, and this is bipartisan. Republican and Democratic alike have failed to really put together an effective strategy to attack this particular threat.

GWEN IFILL: Juan Carlos Zarate, let’s talk about the terrorism aspect of this. We have heard a lot today about the no-fly list and the watch list and TIDE all of these other protections which are supposed to be in place. Explain them to us and why wasn’t he on any list that would have put a red flag by his name.

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Sure, Gwen.

I think the list discussion underscores the importance of intelligence on the front end. I think your other guests are absolutely right. You have got to have the right layered defense in technologies to detect potential bombs and other materials used.

But the reality is that the terrorists are always innovating. And if it is not planes, it is trains, it is limousines. They are going to find other ways to detonate devices and to attack us. And, so, the fundamental point here, I think, is, we have to have the right intelligence that allows us to point to the right individuals that we are — need to focus on.

The problem we have here is that you had an individual who was notified to us by his father in Nigeria, a prominent banker, notified the U.S. Embassy, which is a little bit unusual. He didn’t just go to his local authorities. He went to the U.S. Embassy to tell us that he was concerned about his son.

But the problem is, there wasn’t enough information yet about the individual to put him on the more restrictive no-fly list or selectee list, which allows the U.S., in concert with airlines, to bar individuals from traveling on airlines to the U.S.

GWEN IFILL: What would…

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: So, he was part of a broader database, but there wasn’t enough information as of the point of his embarkation to allow authorities to not let him on the flight.

GWEN IFILL: What kind of information would you have needed in order to get bumped up from a mere watch list to a “don’t let him on this plane” list?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Well, all authorities had, at least at the point where he was put on what is known as the TIDE list — this is the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment — the initials don’t matter, but what is important is, he was put in this sort of broad database, over 500 names in that database.

What you need to get on the no-fly list is more information about a threat from the individuals, known terrorist ties, known to be operational, perhaps known to have had training or contact with al-Qaida. Some of that wasn’t known. And I think one of the questions that will come up in this review is whether or not more should have been done to understand this individual’s contact in Yemen and Nigeria and London before he got onto this flight.

GWEN IFILL: So, that’s…

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Hindsight is 20/20, though. This is very difficult. People need to remember we get thousands of pieces of data from walk-ins and other sources all the time. And it’s very difficult to triage here, without more information.

GWEN IFILL: I just want to correct one little thing. It’s 500,000 people on that list. That is what you meant to say. But I also…

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Five hundred thousand, that’s right.


But I want to ask about Yemen, because now we see this afternoon the government of Yemen has said, yes, he traveled to our country. And we have heard that the al-Qaida, this offshoot of al-Qaida, based apparently in Yemen, has claimed responsibility.

How much of a problem or a threat or a worry is Yemen and as a training ground for people like this?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: This is a huge concern, Gwen. Yemen has been on the radar screen for counterterrorism officials for some time as a potential new safe haven for al-Qaida operatives. We know that al-Qaida has some high-level individuals who have set up shop there with compounds and training.

In general, they have been local in their focus, attacking terrorist sites, taking hostages, attacking the Yemenis. But now I think the worst nightmare has emerged, which is a platform other than Pakistan and Afghanistan serving as sort of a lily pad from which al-Qaida can then try to attack the U.S.

And I think this now is kind of the straw that broke the camel’s back, because we have had other concerns and incidents with respect to Yemen. But I think this is the one that is going to garner the attention of U.S. officials more than any to date. And I think we’re going to see more intensive focus on Yemen, as we have seen over the last couple of weeks with raids in Yemen against al-Qaida safe houses and compounds.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask each of you, briefly if you can give us a sense tonight, starting with you, Larry Johnson, how frayed is our safety security net right now?


GWEN IFILL: How frayed is it?

LARRY JOHNSON: It has got some gaps that haven’t been closed, but we have known about them for almost 20 years. So, the point is, we have made some improvements since 9/11, but there are still some significant areas of gaps that we need to close.

GWEN IFILL: Douglas Laird, how frayed?

DOUGLAS LAIRD: One of the things that Juan Carlos said caught my attention, and that was that, when I was at Northwest, we designed a program called CAPPS, computer assisted pre-passenger screening. That program was mandated by the FAA to all U.S.-flagged carriers.

On 9/11, the CAPPS program we developed at Northwest identified 10 of the 19 hijackers. This was on 9/11. What failed on 9/11 were the FAA policies and procedures of how to deal with those selectees.

I have heard that, since 9/11, the TSA has abandoned the CAPPS program. If that is the case, somebody should also investigate why.

GWEN IFILL: And you believe that that is a hole in the safety net as well?


GWEN IFILL: Juan Carlos Zarate, where do you see the holes in the safety net, if they exist?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Gwen, I think a major issue that still remains — it was an issue during the Bush administration, and I think the Obama administration will confront this — is the variety of databases that we have with respect to suspect individuals.

There are still restrictions based on U.S. law, very important restrictions, on the blending of some of that data. And, so, there are dots out there that aren’t initially connected, in part because of civil liberties and civil rights concerns, again, legitimate.

But I think we are going to confront a time when we are going to have to come to grips with the inclusion of that information. And we’re also going to have to come to grips with the fact that biometrics, at the end of the day, will be a much more effective way of screening individuals than a name-based system.

Fortunately, in this case, he used his name. But that doesn’t preclude somebody from using an alias or a false passport. And I think that is something we are going to have to come to grips with.

GWEN IFILL: You think security eventually will trump privacy on this?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Well, I think we have seen pendular swings.

Recall, Gwen, that, over the last three years, there has been a hue and cry in terms of removing names off the list, a huge amount of pressure from Congress, for example, to take and reduce the list on the no-fly and selectee list.

And, so, now I think you are seeing the pendular swing the other way, with people calling for folks on the TIDE list to be incorporated onto the no-fly list. There are real costs to that in terms of commercial travel, but also in terms of civil liberties and civil rights.

But we have got to find a balance and we have got realize that the terrorists are innovating. They are global. And these threats come from all parts of the world.

GWEN IFILL: Juan Carlos Zarate, Douglas Laird, and Larry Johnson, thank you all very much.


JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Thank you, Gwen.

DOUGLAS LAIRD: Thank you so much.