May 7, 2010
Since posting my blog, “The System Worked,” on Security Debrief and several other social media sites commending the work of law enforcement, intelligence and others in the capture of the failed Times Square bomber, I’ve received lots of feedback. And I couldn’t be happier.
It’s been everything from, “Are you kidding? The system didn’t work! He was able to get on a plane!” to “The system got lucky because this guy was inept.”
To everyone who wrote in response to the post, I offer my sincere thanks. Everyone offered a number of good points that brought thought and debate to this still unfolding situation. While I can’t respond to all of the points raised, I wanted to tackle a few of the arguments that people posed to my blog.
Argument 1: Faisal Shahzad should have never been able to drive the bomb into Times Square.
There are lots of locations around NYC where Port Authority police officers are stationed, usually outside of the tunnels, where vehicles can be pulled aside for inspection. Times Square is not one of those locations. It literally is an active crossroads and confluence of people and traffic. If you’ve ever been there or driven through it, you know that, and that is one of the reasons it is a prime target.
This area has seen bombings occur there before, usually focused on the U.S. military recruiting station, but vehicle traffic has always been a part of this national landmark. Right now, there is no technology system, short of a VACIS machine (which screens cargo containers) that can see through a vehicle to know what’s in it. There are lots of technologies under development that alert a pending vehicle threat, but unless you stop each vehicle, empty it and go through all of it, you will never know its contents. Hence the reason the NYPD has deployed cameras throughout the area to monitor what is happening 24 hours a day.
Unless NYC decides to shut the entire area off to vehicle traffic, like Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, and make it a pedestrian plaza, there is no real way of stopping any vehicle from going into the area with a concealed explosive and parking it as Faisal Shahzad did last Saturday. A Times Square without vehicle traffic, particularly all the yellow cabs, is not Times Square.
Argument 2 – Faisal Shahzad should have never been allowed to become a U.S. citizen.
This argument bothered me for many reasons. While there is little doubt given his media-reported confession that Shahzad took up arms against his country, it is not OK to make a sweeping argumentative generalization that because he was visiting Pakistan was reason enough to disqualify him from citizenship. Investigators are still working to piece together when he decided to start his terror training and make his move. Prior to last week, Mr. Shahzhad was a complete nobody and was on no one’s radar screen and for good reason. Based on interviews and media reports, he appears to have been a completely anonymous individual, and if someone is not doing anything to draw attention to himself, how do you know to keep watch on them?
Additionally, we do not interrogate or investigate every person who comes into our country after traveling to a foreign destination. Everyday, people cross borders to visit family, go on vacation or do business in another country. We also don’t send teams of intelligence and law enforcement agents to investigate whether the answers they give to Customs officials upon their return to America are true. If we did, we would no longer be the United States of America – we’d be one of the pariahs of past and current history where discrimination and abuse of civil liberties are the norm.
As evil and repugnant as Shahzhad’s attempted actions may have been, knee-jerk reactions to start stripping people of citizenship and denying people citizenship because they come from one particular country or visit a country that has “ lots of issues” seem to be the first step towards a very dark and unrecognizable America.
Argument 3 – The system didn’t work because he got on the plane and almost got away.
When I wrote my blog post, it was before news about the problems with the no-fly list were revealed. While it’s obvious that the system in place to deal with the no-fly list did not work (because Shahzhad was able to get on a plane), I stand behind my assertion that the system worked.
We were indeed very lucky that Shahzhad was apprehended when he was. Kudos for that go to CBP for getting him when they did, but I’m also a big believer that an “ugly win” is still a win. The fact is Shahzhad never left the ground. While there will be those who will accurately state that the system failed in allowing him to get on the plane by buying a one-way ticket with cash, if he passes TSA screening to board the aircraft and he’s not listed in the system as a threat, there was no reason why he couldn’t get on it.
Everyone seems to forget that on Monday evening, Shahzhad was an absolute nobody that anybody saw as a threat to anyone. By Tuesday morning, he was a somebody that everybody knew about.
There are certainly lots of things that could have gone better in this case and there is a lot more to learn from, but the fact is we have the perpetrator in our custody. There are plenty of reasons to acknowledge the success of this week, as there are reasons for suspicion of the other anonymous Shahzad’s in our midst who are thinking of when they may act against our nation. As we look to learn from this week, we also need to remember who we are as a nation and not lose sight of those fundamentals in how we respond. That’s the greatest lesson that I take away from this week, and I hope others do too.
This piece was originally posted on Security Debrief.