After Eight Years, Terrorists Still Fly

The Christmas Day attempt to destroy an airplane landing in Detroit underscores the sad reality that terrorism is a constant danger to the United States. Let us hope that policymakers will take this opportunity to make some overdue changes in their strategies for preventing attacks.

They can start by “rationalizing” various government databases. It is disturbing that someone who is thought to have connections to terrorism serious enough to warrant being placed on a government watch list is still not put on the smaller “no-fly” list of people who are banned from airplanes.

How did this come to pass? The no-fly list is reserved for those who are thought to pose a threat to airplanes. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the man charged with the would-be Christmas Day bombing, was on the watch list because his own father had warned American officials about his son’s increasing radicalism. But an Obama administration official said “there was insufficient derogatory information available” to merit Mr. Abdulmutallab’s inclusion on the list.

Given Al Qaeda’s known obsession with attacking our aviation system and its tendency to go after the same target repeatedly, anyone on a terror watch list should automatically be placed on the no-fly list. To those who fear that doing so would tip off an unsuspecting terrorist that we are watching him, I say it is far better to do that than to risk an attack. At least, people known to be, or suspected of being, tied to terrorism should automatically be placed on the so-called selectee list, so that they are subject to especially thorough airport screening.

Then there is the matter of Mr. Abdulmutallab’s visa. Citizens of most countries need a visa to visit the United States. To get one in the post-9/11 world, an applicant must go to an American embassy or consulate to be interviewed by a consular officer and have his fingers scanned and his photo taken. His name is run through various databases to determine whether he is a known or suspected terrorist or criminal.

In June 2008, when our embassy in London granted Mr. Abdulmutallab a two-year visa, according to officials, there was nothing to indicate that he had any terrorism ties. So far, so good. But after his father reported him to the American Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, this fall, shouldn’t his visa have been revoked? And shouldn’t aviation officials have been told to be on the lookout for him, should he attempt to board a plane bound for the United States?

Databases and visas aren’t the only areas of weakness: there is also a need for better passenger screening. Apparently, even as law-abiding citizens are routinely delayed for carrying bottled water or too much toothpaste, Mr. Abdulmutallab was able to go through security with a highly explosive powder mixture that he had taped to his leg.

More than eight years after 9/11, most airport checkpoints are still equipped only with metal detectors. Millimeter-wave machines and other body-scanning devices that can spot suspicious items hidden underneath clothing have not yet been deployed in great numbers. And the Transportation Security Administration recently scrapped for performance problems “puffer” machines meant to detect traces of explosives on passengers. The agency must redouble its efforts to develop alternative screening technology, because explosives (including the liquid kind) remain terrorists’ weapon of choice.

Perhaps the biggest lesson for airline security from the recent incident is that we must overcome our tendency to be reactive. We always seem to be at least one step behind the terrorists. They find one security gap — carrying explosives onto a plane in their shoes, for instance — and we close that one, and then wait for them to exploit another. Why not identify all the vulnerabilities and then address each one before terrorists strike again?

Since the authorities have to succeed 100 percent of the time, and terrorists only once, the odds are overwhelmingly against the authorities. But they’ll be more likely to defy fate if they go beyond reflexive defense and play offense for a change.

Clark Kent Ervin, the inspector general of the State Department from 2001 to 2003 and of the Department of Homeland Security from 2003 to 2004 and the director of the Aspen Institute’s homeland security program.