A One-Step Program for Better Airline Security

President Obama's recent (if only implicit) acknowledgment of the need to at least talk about terrorism in a less abstruse, more immediate manner is a small but welcome development in what one hopes is an evolving odyssey towards serious understanding and treatment of the threats posed to America by Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, the 7 January report on his review of the abortive terrorist bombing in Detroit on Christmas Day and the correctives he ordered were as disheartening as they was predictable. 

Echoing many of the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission report, and indeed questions in the ongoing review of the November Fort Hood massacre, Obama declared the near-disaster a result of inadequate airport screening, insufficiently rapid communication and information dissemination among concerned agencies, analysis that "failed to connect the dots" (sigh...), and diffused lines of responsibility with regards to who has the lead in running specific terrorist threats to ground. The president has ordered measures -- many yet to be specified -- to address those shortcomings. For at least three reasons, this approach will fail to achieve its intended results.

First, the strategy of reaction -- adopting new restrictions and rules for airline travel each time terrorists try out a new method of attack -- condemns us to perpetually playing catchup and cedes the initiative to those who seek to inflict wanton violence upon us. As we have seen, prohibiting sharp objects, liquids, movement during portions of flight, etc. only force a resourceful enemy to focus upon where we are not currently looking. So while millions of non-terrorist Americans and travelers to America will likely have to submit to body scanning and other more intrusive, expensive, and time-consuming impositions, al-Qaeda will observe, adapt, and target the inevitable vulnerabilities created by our attempts to counter their last tactic. 

Second, the immense bureaucracy of our national security establishment -- significantly exacerbated by many of the post-9/11 "reforms" -- will continue to militate against the presidential mandates to achieve the agility, responsiveness, and accountability promised in Obama's address. As eclectic scholar James Q. Wilson noted in his landmark study, government bureaucracies are motivated by rules more than results. Rules slow and restrict action. and they diffuse responsibility. It is an oft-observed cliché that in government, "everyone can say 'no,' but no one can say 'yes.'" This dynamic biases a system toward inaction. The truth is that rarely is punishment meted out for delaying or deferring a decision, but many are the stories of intrepid bureaucratic warriors who stuck their necks out only to have them lopped off after making a controversial call. Our current intelligence and counterterrorism apparatus is emblematic of this dysfunction; it is immense and confusing, with many overlapping (and at times conflicting) lines of operations and authority. Unsurprisingly, the requirements and thresholds for placing a suspect on the "no-fly" list or revoking a visa are fairly elaborate, and authority for making such decisions is restricted to a relative few.

This brings us to the third and most important problem with Obama's "new" measures to interrupt a similar plot: As with the previous administration's efforts, they do not address the problem of proper allocation of what management expert Michael Jenkins and others have termed "decision rights": how and to whom an organization allocates the authority to take or order action. If the president is serious about wanting to thwart would-be terrorists from boarding aircraft, he should decree (by executive order that holds harmless individuals acting in good faith and erring on the side of security, if need be) that authority for placing suspected terrorists on a no-fly list, or taking other similar measures to deny them access to aircraft, be pushed down to those at the "pointy end of the spear," and the criteria for justifying such decisions should be broadened.

In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the system failed to interdict perhaps the clumsiest attacker imaginable. Here was a young Muslim man, whose father (a prominent banker) reported to the CIA station chief in Nigeria that he feared his son may carry out violence against Americans; U.S. intelligence analysts had knowledge that the young man in question had, in fact, had association with al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen; the U.K. refused to grant him entrance into their country due to suspicions over his intentions, and they shared that information with U.S. officials; the U.S. State Department had knowledge that he had a visa allowing recurring access into the U.S.; and he paid cash for a one-way ticket from Amsterdam to Detroit without any checked luggage. Thankfully, he had apparently as much explosive as tradecraft expertise, which is to say not much. One might be excused for believing that the young man's actions constituted a suicide attempt -- a cry for attention -- rather than a fast track to the eternal connubial bliss typically sought by such operatives.

In this scenario, there were a number of points and places where a properly empowered individual on the "front lines" of the system -- the CIA station chief or State Department official in Nigeria, an analyst tracking the individual, an alert ticket clerk in Amsterdam -- should have been able to make the decision right there to revoke his U.S. visa, to place him on a no-fly list (at least temporarily, while further investigating his background and associations), or simply to detain him for enhanced airport screening that may well have led to information sufficient to bar his boarding. More than any of the corrective actions currently ordered by President Obama, this simple measure would have an immediate positive effect. It would simultaneously empower individuals at all levels of the system by freeing them from the soul-deadening burden of seeking a decision through layers of bureaucratic staffing, and it would create the increased accountability sought by the president and others. "Above my pay grade" could no longer be used as a reason not to take action.

I do not intend to imply that changing the rules like this would be a problem-free solution. As Professor Jenkins warns, "Allocating decision rights in ways that maximize organizational performance is an extraordinarily difficult and controversial management task." No doubt some number of "false positive" decisions would result in people placed on a list or denied entry in error (in fact, this happens now), and the ACLU and similar groups would be vocal and litigious in their outrage. But given the stakes, and the huge inconvenience to the entire flying public created by the onerous security procedures already (or soon to be) in place, the potential gain of keeping an Abdulmutallab off of an aircraft outweighs the risk of additionally inconveniencing a relative few. 
President Obama's recent (if only implicit) acknowledgment of the need to at least talk about terrorism in a less abstruse, more immediate manner is a small but welcome development in what one hopes is an evolving odyssey towards serious understanding and treatment of the threats posed to America by Islamic extremism. Unfortunately, the 7 January report on his review of the abortive terrorist bombing in Detroit on Christmas Day and the correctives he ordered were as disheartening as they was predictable. 

Echoing many of the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission report, and indeed questions in the ongoing review of the November Fort Hood massacre, Obama declared the near-disaster a result of inadequate airport screening, insufficiently rapid communication and information dissemination among concerned agencies, analysis that "failed to connect the dots" (sigh...), and diffused lines of responsibility with regards to who has the lead in running specific terrorist threats to ground. The president has ordered measures -- many yet to be specified -- to address those shortcomings. For at least three reasons, this approach will fail to achieve its intended results.

First, the strategy of reaction -- adopting new restrictions and rules for airline travel each time terrorists try out a new method of attack -- condemns us to perpetually playing catchup and cedes the initiative to those who seek to inflict wanton violence upon us. As we have seen, prohibiting sharp objects, liquids, movement during portions of flight, etc. only force a resourceful enemy to focus upon where we are not currently looking. So while millions of non-terrorist Americans and travelers to America will likely have to submit to body scanning and other more intrusive, expensive, and time-consuming impositions, al-Qaeda will observe, adapt, and target the inevitable vulnerabilities created by our attempts to counter their last tactic. 

Second, the immense bureaucracy of our national security establishment -- significantly exacerbated by many of the post-9/11 "reforms" -- will continue to militate against the presidential mandates to achieve the agility, responsiveness, and accountability promised in Obama's address. As eclectic scholar James Q. Wilson noted in his landmark study, government bureaucracies are motivated by rules more than results. Rules slow and restrict action. and they diffuse responsibility. It is an oft-observed cliché that in government, "everyone can say 'no,' but no one can say 'yes.'" This dynamic biases a system toward inaction. The truth is that rarely is punishment meted out for delaying or deferring a decision, but many are the stories of intrepid bureaucratic warriors who stuck their necks out only to have them lopped off after making a controversial call. Our current intelligence and counterterrorism apparatus is emblematic of this dysfunction; it is immense and confusing, with many overlapping (and at times conflicting) lines of operations and authority. Unsurprisingly, the requirements and thresholds for placing a suspect on the "no-fly" list or revoking a visa are fairly elaborate, and authority for making such decisions is restricted to a relative few.

This brings us to the third and most important problem with Obama's "new" measures to interrupt a similar plot: As with the previous administration's efforts, they do not address the problem of proper allocation of what management expert Michael Jenkins and others have termed "decision rights": how and to whom an organization allocates the authority to take or order action. If the president is serious about wanting to thwart would-be terrorists from boarding aircraft, he should decree (by executive order that holds harmless individuals acting in good faith and erring on the side of security, if need be) that authority for placing suspected terrorists on a no-fly list, or taking other similar measures to deny them access to aircraft, be pushed down to those at the "pointy end of the spear," and the criteria for justifying such decisions should be broadened.

In the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the system failed to interdict perhaps the clumsiest attacker imaginable. Here was a young Muslim man, whose father (a prominent banker) reported to the CIA station chief in Nigeria that he feared his son may carry out violence against Americans; U.S. intelligence analysts had knowledge that the young man in question had, in fact, had association with al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen; the U.K. refused to grant him entrance into their country due to suspicions over his intentions, and they shared that information with U.S. officials; the U.S. State Department had knowledge that he had a visa allowing recurring access into the U.S.; and he paid cash for a one-way ticket from Amsterdam to Detroit without any checked luggage. Thankfully, he had apparently as much explosive as tradecraft expertise, which is to say not much. One might be excused for believing that the young man's actions constituted a suicide attempt -- a cry for attention -- rather than a fast track to the eternal connubial bliss typically sought by such operatives.

In this scenario, there were a number of points and places where a properly empowered individual on the "front lines" of the system -- the CIA station chief or State Department official in Nigeria, an analyst tracking the individual, an alert ticket clerk in Amsterdam -- should have been able to make the decision right there to revoke his U.S. visa, to place him on a no-fly list (at least temporarily, while further investigating his background and associations), or simply to detain him for enhanced airport screening that may well have led to information sufficient to bar his boarding. More than any of the corrective actions currently ordered by President Obama, this simple measure would have an immediate positive effect. It would simultaneously empower individuals at all levels of the system by freeing them from the soul-deadening burden of seeking a decision through layers of bureaucratic staffing, and it would create the increased accountability sought by the president and others. "Above my pay grade" could no longer be used as a reason not to take action.

I do not intend to imply that changing the rules like this would be a problem-free solution. As Professor Jenkins warns, "Allocating decision rights in ways that maximize organizational performance is an extraordinarily difficult and controversial management task." No doubt some number of "false positive" decisions would result in people placed on a list or denied entry in error (in fact, this happens now), and the ACLU and similar groups would be vocal and litigious in their outrage. But given the stakes, and the huge inconvenience to the entire flying public created by the onerous security procedures already (or soon to be) in place, the potential gain of keeping an Abdulmutallab off of an aircraft outweighs the risk of additionally inconveniencing a relative few. 

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