From its earliest creation, the no-fly list has been problematic at best. I don’t know how you get on this list. I also have no idea how you get off the list. It remains unclear who checks the list to make sure the people who are on this list should be on it. From my standpoint, I really don’t care who is in charge of the list and who maintains it just as long as the list is accurate. Five years ago, Yusef Islam, more commonly known as Cat Stevens, the guy who sang Peace Train was found to be on the no-fly watch list.
Now, five years later, we have a Nigerian student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, whose name was on some list, but not the no-fly list. More than a month ago, this guy’s father went to the Nigerian embassy and told officials that he was worried about his son. I don’t know how often this happens. Maybe fathers go to embassies on a daily basis and state that their sons have joined radical sects of Islam. I think it probably happens rarely and would investigate it, but what does a trauma surgeon know about terrorism? American officials did little or nothing with the information. It seems to me that a rookie could take the information given by the father, a prominent businessman in Nigeria, and combine it with the fact that Umar Farouk was living in London, a place where we know several radical clerics live. It seems that that information, in and of itself, is enough to start an investigation.
This the same kind of problem we saw in 9/11. We saw the same lack of connecting the dots.
Abdulmutallab seems to have almost the exact same background as Osama bin Laden. Both have prominent fathers. Both grew up relatively well off compared to the rest of the population. Both went off to some foreign environment and got radicalized. This seems to be a pattern. I wonder if our intelligence officials have picked up on it.
Now I’m not a chemist. I did take two years of chemistry plus a year of organic chemistry. (I won’t mention the physical chemistry, since I really don’t remember any of it.) PETN is an explosive. It’s one of the key ingredients in Semtex, a plastic explosive. It is the exact same chemical that Richard Reid (the shoe bomber) tried to detonate. I have no idea how one would get his hands on something like this. I would figure that it is a relatively controlled substance. Can dogs smell the stuff? Can it be x-rayed? (If not, then why are we taking off our shoes?)
It seems to me that mob rule, which is what happened here when the passengers overpowered Abdulmutallab, isn’t a consistently effective way to control terrorism. Are we all going to have to learn karate before getting on our next flight?
Finally, Republicans are acting as expected. They are running around and pointing the finger at Barack Obama. Some have even stated that the Obama administration hasn’t taken the risk of terrorism seriously. This is of course utter nonsense. What the Bush administration could not achieve is now left for Obama to try to do — make the FBI and Homeland Security work for the American people. About two years, ago, I asked Richard Clarke if the CIA is working with the FBI in close harmony. His answer was “not really.” This is what we need.