THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Critics call for changes in air safety

Obama orders review after terror attempt

The Delta-Northwest Airlines plane damaged in the Christmas terrorism attempt was pulled to a terminal in Detroit Saturday. The Delta-Northwest Airlines plane damaged in the Christmas terrorism attempt was pulled to a terminal in Detroit Saturday. (Carlos Osorio/ Associated Press)
By Eric Lipton and Scott Shane
New York Times / December 28, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

WASHINGTON - When a prominent Nigerian banker and former government official phoned the US Embassy in Abuja in October with a warning that his son had developed radical views, had disappeared, and might have traveled to Yemen, embassy officials did not revoke the young man’s visa to enter the United States, which was good until June 2010.

Instead, officials said yesterday, they marked the file of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for a full investigation if he should ever reapply for a visa. And when they passed the information on to Washington, Abdulmutallab’s name was added to 550,000 others with some alleged terrorist connections, but not to the no-fly list. That meant that no flags were raised when he used cash to buy a ticket to the United States and boarded a plane, checking no bags.

Now that Abdulmutallab is charged with trying to blow up a transcontinental airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day, some members of Congress are urgently questioning why, eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks, security measures still cannot stop terrorists from boarding flights with makeshift bombs.

Yesterday, as criticism mounted that security lapses had led to a brush with disaster, President Obama ordered a review of the two major planks of the aviation security system: the creation of watch lists and the use of detection equipment at airport checkpoints.

At the same time, a jittery air travel system coped with a new scare. On the same flight that Abdulmutallab took on Friday, Northwest 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, an ailing Nigerian man who spent a long time in the bathroom inadvertently triggered a security alert, though the incident turned out to be a false alarm.

Officials in several countries, meanwhile, worked to retrace Abdulmutallab’s path and to look for security holes. In Nigeria, officials said he arrived in Lagos on Christmas Eve, just hours before departing for Amsterdam.

US officials were tracking his travels to Yemen, and Scotland Yard investigators were checking on his connections in London, where he studied from 2005 to 2008 at University College London and was president of the Islamic Society.

Obama administration officials scrambled to portray the episode, in which passengers and flight attendants subdued Abdulmutallab and doused the fire he had started, as a test that the air safety system has passed.

“The system has worked really very, very smoothly over the course of the past several days,’’ Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary said, in an interview on ABC’s “This Week.’’

Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, used nearly the same language on CBS’s “Face the Nation,’’ saying that “in many ways, this system has worked.’’

But counterterrorism specialists and members of Congress were hardly willing to praise what they said was a security system that has been shown to be not nimble enough to respond to the evolving techniques devised by would-be terrorists.

Congressional leaders said the tip from Abdulmutallab’s father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, should have resulted in closer scrutiny of him before he boarded the plane in Amsterdam. Senator Susan Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that his visa should have been revoked or at least that he should have been given a physical pat down or a full-body scan.

“This individual should not have been missed,’’ Collins said in an interview yesterday. “Clearly there should have been a red flag next to his name.’’

The episode over Detroit has renewed a debate that has quietly continued since the 2001 attacks over the proper balance between security and privacy. The government has spent the last several years cutting down the watch list, after repeated criticism that too many people were being questioned at border crossings or checkpoints. Now it may be asked to expand it again.

“You are second-guessed one day and criticized on another,’’ said one Transportation Security Administration official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

Privacy advocates, for example, have attempted to stop or at least slow the introduction of advanced checkpoint screening devices that use so-called millimeter waves to create an image of a passenger’s body, so officers can see under clothing to determine if a weapon or explosive has been hidden.

Security officers, in a private area, review the images, which are not stored. Legislation is pending in the House that would prohibit the use of this equipment for routine passenger screening.

To date, only 40 of these machines have been installed at 19 airports across the United States, meaning only a tiny fraction of passengers pass through them. Amsterdam’s airport has 15 of these machines, more than just about any airport in the world, but an official there said yesterday that they are prohibited from using it on passengers bound for the United States, for a reason she did not explain.

Michael Chertoff, former secretary of homeland security, and Kip Hawley, who ran the Transportation Security Administration until January, said these new body-scanning machines are a critical tool that should quickly be installed in more airports nationwide.

For now, US aviation officials have mandated that airports across the world do physical pat downs of passengers on flights headed to the United States, a practice that in the past has also raised privacy objections.

“I understand people have issue with privacy,’’ Hawley said yesterda. “But that is a trade off, and what happened on the plane just highlights what the stakes are.’’

So far, an additional 150 full-body imaging machines have been ordered, but nationwide there are approximately 2,200 checkpoint screening lanes.

One target of the administration’s security review will be the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE, the massive collection of data on more than 500,000 people into which the warning from Abdulmutallab’s father’s was entered.

A law enforcement official said it was not unusual that a one-time comment from a relative would not place a person on the no-fly list, which has only 4,000 names, or the so-called “selectee’’ list of 14,000 names of people who are subjected to more thorough searches at checkpoints.

The point of the TIDE database, the official said, is to make sure even the most minor suspicious details are recorded so that they can be connected to new data in the future.

“The information goes in there, and it’s available to all the agencies,’’ the official said. “The point is to marry up data from different sources over time that may indicate an individual might be a terrorist.’’

The debate over watch lists and screening will be shaped in part by the still-emerging details about Abdulmutallab, his radicalization, alleged training in Yemen, and the details of his bombing attempt.

Officials yesterday were still examining his assertion that he received help from a bomb expert in Yemen associated with Al Qaeda.

Mutallab, the suspect’s father, was scheduled to make a public statement today after talking to security officials in Abuja.

A cousin of Abdulmutallab, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to offend the family, said in an interview yesterday that there was no sign of radicalism in Abdulmutallab while he was growing up in Nigeria, though he was devout.

“I think his father is embarrassed by the whole thing because that was not the way he brought the boy up,’’ the cousin said. “All of us are shocked by it.’’