10 Questions About Terrorism, Obama and the Christmas Day Plot

The fast-moving story raises many questions, political, procedural and existential. Here are some of them:


(1) If, as ABC News reports, the plotters of the Christmas Day attack were released from Guantanamo Bay to Saudi Arabia in 2007, what does this say about the Second Term Bush Consensus about repatriation...the current administration's faith in the Saudi Arabian rehabilitation system...the fragility of the Yemeni government...the entire Obama counterterrorism strategy?

(2) Did Obama, attempting to make a clean break from the Bush years vis-a-vis communicating to the public about terrorism, put too much faith in DHS Secretary Napolitano to serve as the front-line communicator? Who came up with her formulation yesterday -- "the system worked" -- and who told her she had to walk it back this morning?  Was the first instinct of the DHS bureaucracy really that "the system worked?"  Is Napolitano receiving independent advice?
(3) Is John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism coordinator, the right person to oversee a review of the watch list concept? On the one hand, he oversaw its creation as head of the National Counterterrorism Center (then the Terrorist Threat Integration Center), and, as head of The Analysis Corporation, a private consulting firm (with a nice office overlooking the NCTC offices) he played a critical role in building, refining and updating the lists.  He knows this stuff, but he might be too close to independently evaluate it.

(4) Why hasn't the administration acknowledged the temporary and hassling nature of the some of the new security procedures? Why are they allowing airlines to communicate about them?

(5) The contraption used to set fire to the airplane is detectable with current technology, assuming the operators are well trained and know what to look for, which requires good intelligence. Millimeter wave screening probably would have worked, depending on how much of the thing was already attached to his crothial region.  DHS, in fact has tested it at many domestic airports. In Denver, I played along as a TSA tech officer bombarded neutrons at my body, creating a real-time image of my body's heat signature and chemical composition.  This stuff can work, too.  Privacy concerns have prevented widespread use -- or so DHS says.  Folks want to protect TSA officers from seeing their giblits. 

(6) Who's going to initiate this new round of debate?  There are hints that the TSA wants to mandate milimeter wave screening -- and give folks the option of a real pat down, which might be more intrusive, because those hands aren't just going to touch your back.  Also: If we can shoot air puffs around would-be terrorists and catch a whiff of chemical signatures, is a large expenditure by Congress to pay for these machines feasible in the current fiscal environment?

(7) Do we need a global air security treaty? Some countries permit more intrusive screening than others. Why weren't air marshals on the AMS to DTW leg of the flight? If the reason is diplomatic, who's going to fix this?

(8) For security purposes, is it better to brag about security procedures -- letting the bad guys know about the technology we do have -- or keep them hidden? There are risks and benefits to both approaches. So far, the government has decided that a certain type of security theater is preferable to a "let it all hang out approach."  

(9) What role, if any, did the leaked TSA manual play in the plotting stages? What about all those Government Accountability Office reports pointing out the inadequacy of current TSA screening?

(10) Does this attack signify Al Qaeda's (a) existence as an actual, coherent network, (b) weakness (c) morphing into a worldwide ideology that can't be "defeated" so much as made marginal?
Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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