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TSA's Poor Handling of Northwest 253 Shows Need for Leadership

By now, everyone has heard of the failed bombing of Delta/Northwest flight 253. This was frighteningly close to being a disaster, but the bomb didn't go off. Now the only disaster we have is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and its abysmal handling of the situation. It might surprise you to know that there still isn't anyone leading the TSA right now; President Obama's long-delayed nomination is sitting with the Senate, blocked by a lonely Republican senator. This is unacceptable.

Let's go back to before this incident happened. The passenger had a very distinct name, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He bought a one way ticket from Lagos to Detroit via Amsterdam and paid with cash. He had no checked luggage. In the months leading up to this flight, the suspect's own father had called US officials to let them know that his son had been radicalized and that he was afraid he was plotting something against the US. Umar made a list of suspicious people, but he never made it on to the TSA watch list or the no fly list.

You would think there were enough red flags there to warrant a big ole' "NO FLY" being placed on this guy's name. I mean, if a 10 year old named Jim Smith can get flagged, how is this guy sailing through? We can look at airport security and say they should have caught the problem, but let's be honest, this was a huge intelligence failure. This should have been caught long before he ever arrived at the airport.

But the failures before the incident are only a piece of the story. The failures after the incident were even more striking. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano came out saying that the system had worked. What?! She later clarified that she meant the response system worked once the incident occurred. Yeah, right.

It was the TSA's response, however, that really showed how inept this group is at dealing with crises. The initial response was to throw out a slew of rules that hurt the airlines dramatically and provided no safety or security value. Passengers on flights into the US were required to sit in their seats for the last hour of flight and they couldn't have anything in their laps. Pilots couldn't make an announcement pointing out the Grand Canyon (or anything else), and airlines have to turn off their moving map displays so that nobody could see where they were. For some airlines, this meant turning off their inflight entertainment systems altogether.

What did this achieve? Absolutely nothing. A terrorist could have stood up 65 minutes before arrival, and just looking at the window, you could tell if you were over the US or not. I'm pretty sure when the pointy end of the airplane starts going down, you can figure out that you're landing as well. This was security theater at its worst.

Someone at the TSA apparently realized its shortcomings quickly (or bowed to public outcry). Nearly all of these rules were reversed within a couple of days. So now what? The TSA needs leadership, and it's not getting it.

President Obama nominated Erroll Southers to lead the TSA in September. Though the nomination started to move through swiftly, it abruptly was stopped when Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) decided he didn't like this guy. The Senator decided to require a full Senate debate and roll call. That has been pushed because they've been just a little busy with that whole healthcare thing. (You may have heard of it.)

Does Sen. DeMint think Southers isn't qualified? I don't think that's the issue. He just doesn't like unions, and the expectation is that Southers will allow collective bargaining for the TSA. In DeMint's view, this will slow the TSA and not allow it to react quickly enough. So the TSA continues to waste its power aimlessly while airline passengers suffer.

We need a leader to fix this place.

We need a leader who is going to create a comprehensive watch list plan that interfaces with other agencies.

We need a leader who is willing to push forward through privacy concerns and implement new technology (backscatter, shoe scanners, etc) to make screening more accurate and less painful.

We need a leader who is going to make sure that our intelligence catches terrorists instead of relying on security theater.

At this point, that might be asking too much. We just need a leader, any leader.

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