Flighty Intelligence

Posted April 06, 2010, at 5:44 p.m.

The Obama administration has moved in the right direction by dropping a blanket policy of screening airline passengers from more than a dozen countries and replacing it with one based on a more sophisticated consideration of intelligence information, even if it is not complete, and travel patterns.

But, Sen. Susan Collins, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is right that the new approach won’t help much if U.S. agencies don’t share information.

In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged Christmas Day bomber, better information sharing — even though some of the information was partial — might have prevented the incident. The Nigerian man is charged with trying to blow up an airliner en route to Detroit with explosive hid-den in his underwear. He was subdued by passengers on the flight, which originated in Amsterdam.

The young man’s father went to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria to warn that his son had expressed radical views. His name was added to a database of more than 50,000 people with suspected terrorist ties, but he was not moved to a much smaller list of people who should undergo additional security screening nor even to the shorter no-fly list. This was because the information from his father was not considered serious enough.

While Britain had revoked Mr. Abdulmutallab’s visa and placed him on its watch list, his multiple-entry U.S. visa was not revoked. Part of the reason his U.S. visa was not revoked was that his name was misspelled when State Department officials reviewed his visa status. Checking multiple spell-ings simply makes sense.

A major problem is the vast amount of data that intelligence and law enforcement agencies must sift through. Michael E. Leiter, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, acknowledged to lawmakers earlier this year that billions of dollars and more than eight years after the Sept. 11 ter-rorist attacks, there still is no simple way to quickly and easily search the reams of information the agencies have collected. In the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, there was talk of a Google-type search system that would even look for misspelled names.

Fixing these shortcomings must be a priority for both Congress and the Obama administration, so that its airport screening will be more effective.

“Intelligence-based security … will give America a more nimble response system against terrorists and permit more resources to be targeted at high-risk individuals,” said Sen. Collins, who met Friday with Dutch officials at the Amsterdam airport.

But, she added, “Intelligence-based targeting systems are only as effective as the intelligence they are based upon.”

The bottom line is that gathering intelligence is worthless if the information can’t be readily found by people who must decide whether someone should be able to board a plane or should have his visa revoked. Lawmakers should focus their attention on ensuring barriers to information sharing, technical and otherwise, are removed.

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