The attempted (and thankfully thwarted) underwear bomber attack aboard Delta flight 253 on Christmas Day has sent us, as the great bard wrote, "once more unto the breach." The "breach" in this case is the frenzy and angst over failed security and intelligence. According to President Obama, "This was a screw-up that could have been disastrous. We dodged a bullet, but just barely. It was averted by brave individuals, not because the system worked, and that is not acceptable."
But to believe that the system would and should always work is pure fantasy. There is no such thing as perfect anything. So to expect that any and every possible terrorist attack can be prevented is completely unrealistic. The system can and will fail. The reality is that systems will always fail, but what you don’t want is a system that fails all the time. Christmas Day was a reminder of both – yes, the system failed to work perfectly but the fact that its failures are relatively few and far between is proof that it doesn’t fail all the time. And it once again proved what the IRA said after a failed attempt on then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s life in 1984, "Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You have to be lucky always." Of course, no politician wants to admit the reality that no matter how good security and intelligence is, it will never be good enough – because it simply can’t be. Instead, the president vowed "to correct that failure so that we can prevent such attacks in the future."
Although Obama acknowledges "that intelligence, by its nature, is imperfect," he expressed this certainty: "The U.S. government had sufficient information to have uncovered this plot and potentially disrupt the Christmas Day attack. But our intelligence community failed to connect those dots, which would have placed the suspect on the ‘no fly’ list." But it’s always easy to connect the dots backwards from a known event. However, it’s not always easy or obvious that the dots connect when all you’re looking at are dots. And there are two important things to remember.
First and foremost, how accurate and reliable is the intelligence? For example, much has been made of the fact that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father alerted the CIA about his son’s extremist views. But was that by itself sufficient to know that Abdulmutallab was a bona fide terrorist who warranted taking action against? Just because someone has extremist views doesn’t automatically make them a terrorist, i.e., it’s probably necessary but not sufficient. And without some sort of corroboration from other reliable sources, how do we know that such information is accurate and reliable? Second, analyzing and interpreting intelligence is not an exact science. So it’s entirely possible to connect the dots in a different way to lead you to a different conclusion. In other words, even if all available information is made available you still might get the wrong answer.
There is an important implication of getting the wrong answer that is rarely acknowledged – false positives. That is, how many times will we falsely identify an innocent person as a threat? And then take steps to neutralize that threat. We don’t want to think about it or talk about it because we’re more concerned with making sure we’re not attacked. But it’s a very real cost with very real consequences – one of which is alienating Muslims who did not pose a threat and making it easier to be recruited by terrorists.
And the reason we’re more concerned with making sure we’re not attacked no matter the cost is because we continue to believe that a terrorist attack is an end-of-the-world event. Why else would Americans give up their Fourth Amendment right "to be secure in their persons … against unreasonable searches and seizures" to subject themselves to even more intrusive security to board an airplane? Not to be callous, but while 9/11 was a great tragedy for the victims and their families, it was not a world- or civilization-ending event for the country. We’re still here. The reality is that terrorism is not an existential threat.
Not only do we make the threat of terrorism bigger than it really is, but we continue to ignore one of the primary reasons we have a terrorist threat at all: an interventionist U.S. foreign policy practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike (the difference being one of style not substance) that gives Muslims good reasons to hate America. That – not security or intelligence shortcomings – is the biggest failure of our government and those in charge of it.