When Nigerian terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded the Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 253 at Amsterdam, he was already in the least-restrictive, 550,000-person Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database of the United States National Counterterrorism Centre. As a result of what President Obama candidly described as “a mix of human and systemic failures,” Abdulmutallab’s name never moved from there to the 4,000-person no-fly list, nor was his multiple-entry U.S. visa revoked. The botched Christmas-day terror attack occurred despite the Central Investigative Agency receiving information last November from Abdulmutallab’s father regarding the terror risk that his son posed; further the National Security Agency had intercepted, in August, al-Qaeda chatter in Yemen on a terror plot involving a Nigerian. The implied inter-agency coordination failures have sparked a sharp debate on national security, mostly along party lines. The Republican opposition, undoubtedly mindful of the mid-term Congressional elections in November, has called into question Mr. Obama’s track record against terror, with former Vice President Dick Cheney saying that the President was “trying to pretend we are not at war.” The White House hit back saying, “Seven years of bellicose rhetoric failed to reduce the threat from al-Qaeda and succeeded in dividing this country.”
Yet there is a danger in dismissing specific Republican questions as opportunistic or irrelevant political posturing. President Obama would do well to take the queries seriously, especially given that the attack was foiled by circumstance rather than any prior intelligence. For example, it was fair to ask, as Representative John Boehner of Ohio did, what exactly is the administration’s “overarching strategy to confront the terrorist threat and keep America safe”; or to criticise, as Republican of the House Intelligence Committee Peter Hoekstra did, the lack of follow-up action when data on Abdulmutallab became available months ago. Some of these arguments may also paradoxically undermine the Republican campaign: Democrats have been quick to point out that it was House Republicans who voted this year against a $44 billion bill financing additional airport security measures. In particular, there is a strong case for using full-body scanners at airports — devices that would have detected the materials Abdulmutallab carried — subject to privacy concerns being addressed. Against the backdrop of intelligence lapses and coordination failures is the spectre of a shift in the balance of Congressional power after the November elections. A new Congress that is less overwhelmingly Democratic is likely to keep up the pressure on President Obama to address security concerns more rigorously.