The Monitor's View

Screen out useless reactions to Christmas Day attack

Drop the partisan politics and knee-jerk security measures resulting from the Christmas Day attack. Focus on what’s useful: passenger screening and terrorist watch lists.

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Talk about the need for better screening. Right now, the United States needs to screen out partisan reactions and knee-jerk responses to the attempted Christmas Day airliner attack over Detroit. Instead, it must focus on what really needs fixing.

Terrorists want to make Americans afraid and panic-stricken, and to send politicians and government officials crashing into each other so that they can’t accomplish anything.

The terrorists succeed when they prompt exaggerated security responses such as not allowing passengers to stand up for the last hour of the flight and not allowing people to keep pillows or blankets on laps. Couldn’t someone do the dirty deed of detonating a bomb in the hours before the last one – with or without a blanket as cover?

They also succeed when they get politicians to pull out their daggers and go for each other: President Obama wants to “appease” the terrorists, and Democrats want to “weaken” security. Republicans disregard terrorism by blocking spending and nominee action in Congress.

True, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano overplayed the calm-the-nation role by declaring incongruously last Sunday that “the system worked.”

But she quickly corrected herself, and Mr. Obama is rightly focused on two weak spots in the system: screening passengers and tracking terrorist suspects. On Thursday, he is expected to receive a preliminary report on the alleged failed attempt of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 – a near miss that Obama admits showed “human and systemic failures” in security.

The president has ordered a review of passenger-screening measures. Any number of methods might have detected Mr. Abdulmutallab’s hidden explosives, including “full body” scanning machines that can detect nonmetallic objects, explosive-sniffing dogs, and alert security employees who could have pulled the young man aside because they noticed he carried nothing more than a small carry-on bag for an international flight.

When Congress returns to work, it will hold hearings on the incident and no doubt the deployment of full-body scanners will come up. The machines are expensive and controversial for the nakedlike images they reveal, but apparently changes can mitigate some of these concerns. Still, Congress must be careful to balance privacy issues with security concerns. (On Wednesday, the Dutch announced they will begin immediate use of the machines for US-bound flights.)

The president also ordered a review of the “watch list” system for tracking suspected terrorists.

The American Embassy in Nigeria correctly passed on Abdulmutallab’s father’s concern about his son’s radicalism, but questions remain about why his name wasn’t put on a narrower watch list, why his US visa wasn’t revoked, and why information about him wasn’t shared more widely within the American intelligence community and with foreign governments. Connect the dots – that was a key lesson from 9/11 and remains one today.

Unfortunately, the debate about screening and watch lists sometimes pits both measures against each other. One camp argues, for instance, that more sophisticated screening machines can’t outsmart terrorists, which is why the US should focus on intelligence and intelligence sharing. Another camp argues that better machines up the uncertainty for terrorists, and substantially improve security.

Here, it’s helpful to go back to the report of the 9/11 Commission – one of the most useful government commission reports ever written.

“Not a single security measure is foolproof,” the report’s authors wrote. Layers of security must be in place, they said. As lawmakers and government officials review this failed bombing, they must think of layering in the most expansive sense – including the use of force in far-off places, and encouraging the growth of democracy, human rights, and economies in the Muslim world.

Terrorists are sure to learn and adapt from the almost-bombing of Christmas Day. America must, too.

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