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9/11 Commission Staff Consider Still-Needed Security Upgrades

December 30, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Jeffrey Brown talks to three people involved with the 9/11 Commission about the latest security failures that allowed a potential terrorist to board a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day eight years after the Sept.11 attacks.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Ray’s recounting of the timetable of events raises questions that investigators and officials are now asking: Where were the gaps in information and action? Why weren’t various dots connected? And what’s to be done going forward?

These are, of course, similar questions to those raised after September 11, 2001. And we ask them now of members of the 9/11 Commission, Richard Ben-Veniste, now an attorney in Washington and formerly one of the lead prosecutors in the Watergate case, James Thompson, former Republican governor of Illinois and chairman of President George H.W. Bush’s Intelligence Oversight Board, and Susan Ginsburg, who served on the commission’s staff, focusing on how the hijackers entered the U.S.

Richard Ben-Veniste, you look at that chain of events, what jumps out at you as most important, things you want to know?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Well, I would like to know what it was that this man’s father told the CIA agent in Nigeria. What concerned him about the radicalization of his son? Was it that he had an intention to strike against the United States in some way? Why did he go to the U.S. Embassy? Why did he go to the CIA?

And if we had preexisting information indicating that a — quote — “Nigerian” had been identified as a Nigerian to be employed in some plot against the United States over Christmas, why these two facts, Nigerian young man who was in Yemen whose father saw him as radicalized and of sufficient threat to warn the United States, why his status was not changed and why he wasn’t at least subjected to secondary screening on the selectee list.

JEFFREY BROWN: Governor Thompson, what — what jumps out at you as the — the key issues, key problems here in that — in that chain of events?

JAMES THOMPSON: Well, I think two things.

First, we’re all awaiting a report by President Obama on what did we know, when did we know it, who knew it, and who was responsible for the decision or non-decision about the no-fly list and the revocation of the visa.

And, secondly, this bears an eerie resemblance to what happened before 9/11 in Minneapolis, when the local FBI agent questioning a man by the name of Moussaoui who was taking flight lessons, and appeared to represent some kind of threat to the United States, and the local FBI agent tried his best to get his superiors in Washington to authorize a foreign intelligence search warrant of Moussaoui possessions, could not get national FBI to cooperate.

Nobody told the CIA. And we will never know whether the information that could have been obtained from Moussaoui before September 11 could have prevented the attack. So, it’s happened again.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Susan Ginsburg, let’s go to that issue. I mean, there was intelligence on this young man. Some of it wasn’t shared, or — or decisions were made not to follow up.

SUSAN GINSBURG: Well, I think we have to try to understand the nuts and bolts, sort of reverse-engineer what happened.

The first question I would ask, apart from all the questions about the actual interview, would be, when the group met to discuss this in the embassy, what information, what additional information were they able to obtain by going back to their agencies to learn, to bring to bear on that discussion?

JEFFREY BROWN: Go ahead.

SUSAN GINSBURG: Yes.

If — if there was information that was not shared at that time, that is troubling, and we would want to look at why, whether, when the request went back, assuming there was a request that went back, it reached the people who actually were concerning themselves with this, if there were such people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Richard Ben-Veniste, the president referred to this as a systemic failure. And it’s of the kind, as the governor said, that you investigated last time around.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: One of the things that most troubled us was the failure to share information, the stove-piping by various agencies.

Let’s see what develops as a result of the investigation about who was told what. Now there is some characteristic finger-pointing going on. But here is what we have. We have a ticket bought with cash — red flag. We have it bought in a remote location — red flag. We have an individual who checks no baggage — red flag.

No questioning, no secondary screening. We know that he has been to Yemen. We know that he has been radicalized. These are all red flags. Had he been subjected to secondary screening at Schiphol Airport, there is a likelihood, given the reports about his demeanor and so forth, that perhaps he would have cracked or perhaps they could have probed further to determine the purpose of his visit and whether in fact he had been in Yemen, what he was doing there, and the kind of questions that trained professionals know to ask an individual, who then arouses suspicion.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Governor Thompson, well, some of these…

JAMES THOMPSON: Well, here’s the..

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, some of these things were — were supposed to have been fixed after 9/11 because of the some of the recommendations you all made…

JAMES THOMPSON: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … especially sharing information and moving through airports, et cetera, getting into the country.

Does this mean the system has not been fixed; it’s still flawed? What does it mean?

JAMES THOMPSON: Well, you know, the Congress adapted many of the recommendations we made about creating a director of national intelligence, making the CIA director secondary to that director, and encouraging the sharing of information.

But the Congress can’t make sure that the humans in the bureaucracy, no matter how good they are as intelligence professionals, carry out the sharing of intelligence. That’s the problem. The — the — the bias against sharing intelligence or acting together still exists today.

And — and one of the most disappointing failures was the complete disregard of our urgent recommendation that some way be found to determine whether passengers are carrying explosives on their body. That was an explicit recommendation of the 9/11 Commission more than five years ago.

And what we have had in the interim is an attempt to use the body scanners, which could determine whether or not explosives are being carried. And, yet, both the Congress, the administration, and the news media have been spooked by the privacy extremists to say, oh, no, no, no, no, we can’t have any body scanners, even though the technology exists to ghost the image. The image is anonymous. It can’t be stored.

The person using a screen doesn’t know who the person is. You can even fix the technology so you can’t tell whether it’s a man or a woman. And, yet, we’re going to exalt both the tourist privileges of this guy from Nigeria and exalt those who can’t say we have — we can’t have the slightest invasion of somebody’s privacy to put those concerns above the lives of Americans and others who are coming to this country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alright, Susan Ginsburg, you want to jump in here?

SUSAN GINSBURG: Well, yes.

I would like to go back to the issue of at what point decisions could have been made differently. Certainly, one of them is to ask the question whether there could have been a secondary inspection in Schiphol.

That depends on who is there to do it and what information they have, what tools they have to acquire that information. The United States has a program, DHS has a program called the Immigration Advisory Program which places CBP, Customs and Border Protection, offices in foreign airports on a reciprocal basis. There was such an officer at Schiphol.

However, the individual, by the time that he reached that point, had already been through physical screening, had already gone through the first round of checks. And nothing was found problematic.

You therefore have to go back and say, what information could have been brought to bear? To do that, you go back to the National Targeting Center, which looks at the names of the lists two hours before flight. They — the National Targeting Center receives information about who is going to fly and have the opportunity to do some searches.

So, again, we have to look at what was available in the system. The — the cash payment from Nigeria would not necessarily be considered an indicator, because many airlines require cash payments in Africa because of the amount of fraud. So, cash payment, in and of itself, a lot of people fly without very much baggage these days because it’s such a hassle. The trip was short. He had a round-trip ticket.

So, again, we — we need to look closely at what was available to whom at what point.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you know, we talked last night on the program about some of the privacy concerns that Governor Thompson just raised.

You can weight in on that. But I also want to ask you about these lists, the list questions. Do those need to be fixed?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Yes.

One of the — one of the things we recommended was that TSA take charge in terms of integrating the information and putting it on a list. No-fly list is a very exclusive list of 4,000. But there is a selectee list that is 14,000 or 15,000. And then there is a larger…

JEFFREY BROWN: Much bigger list, yes.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: … list of half-a-million individuals who have some connection to terrorism.

Now, I think, this review may increase the list for selectee or secondary screening for individuals who pop up on other lists, as this man’s name was added to the larger 500,000 list, we are told.

Now, the technology should exist to be able to match those names quickly, even though there are problems in terms of spelling and so forth.

To turn to the other question on privacy, there has got to be a balance between civil liberties, privacy and security. Here, I think the position is extreme in terms of the puritanical view of the human body. People go to doctors. Doctors look at their bodies.

People have to balance on the one hand what individuals are trying to do to kill them while they go through the mundane process of going from one place to another by airplane, and then certain kinds of technologies, as Jim has mentioned that enable screeners to detect things hidden on — on the human body.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just in the short time left, I want to ask, Governor Thompson, starting with you, is it possible that, even if all these things were done, that — that there are still going to be cases like this?

We talked today to Paul Pillar, a longtime intelligence official, and he said what we’re seeing is a demonstration here that, no matter how hard we try to fix things with reorganization, or try to improve agencies, we face inherent challenges and we are likely to have incidents like this.

What do you think?

JAMES THOMPSON: Well, sure.

But that reminds me of the argument of people who say, well, because cancer screenings only save two or three out of 100 people and promote false positives, we should eliminate or downplay screenings.

If I’m going to be saved by a cancer screening, I want the screening, no matter what the statistics say. And the same thing is true here. Look, we’re a wide-open country. Anybody who really wants to hurt us can do it. They don’t have to get on an airplane and try to set off a bomb hidden in their clothing. They can park four or five trucks around the United States, set them all off at the same time. There will be mass panic.

They can poison food in the supermarkets. There will be mass panic, financial panic. They can blow up railroad lines or try to get to electrical generating stations. We have to take those risks. We have been very lucky since 9/11 that there have been no domestic incidents on our soil.

And God knows how many incidents have been prevented by the intelligence agencies of the nation, who, by and large, do a very good job, a very professional job. But somebody made mistakes here. And we need to find out who and why.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, very briefly, do you think that this will galvanize everyone?

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Yes. I think the president has taken this very seriously. He has taken immediate charge of the situation. He has determined that there will be accountability, that, if there are systemic problems, they need to be addressed. If there was human error, we need to find out why and who.

And I think this is a refreshing change. This is a serious incident. Nearly 300 lives might have been lost as a result of this. We got lucky. They were incompetent in certain regards here. On 9/11, we didn’t take advantage of the mistakes al-Qaida made. But we need to be smarter than we have been.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we have to leave it there.

Richard Ben-Veniste, Susan Ginsburg, and Governor James Thompson, thank you all very much.

JAMES THOMPSON: Thank you.

RICHARD BEN-VENISTE: Thank you.

SUSAN GINSBURG: Thank you.