Security first

Published 8:16 am Friday, January 15, 2010

Christmas Day for many Americans was peaceful. The national holiday brought families together as it regularly does, sharing laughter and gifts inside the comfort of their warm homes. But while Americans were enjoying holiday meals and opening gifts under the Christmas tree, a 23-year-old Nigerian man was boarding a Detroit-bound plane with plans to ignite a package of concealed explosives. He fully expected it to be his last day on earth — and the last day for many innocent Americans.

The Christmas Day bomber’s would-be catastrophic attempt failed. But the realization of what could have been is chilling. The attack exposed a massive failure in the way we connect our intelligence to specific actions that can protect our country. And in the wake of this intelligence and homeland security failure, America’s leaders need to step back and recognize two key mandates that rest on their shoulders:

No 1: We Need to Connect the Dots

While the Christmas Day attack exposed serious failures in several areas of our intelligence and national security system, one of the most egregious was the failure of our intelligence and homeland security agencies to work together in sharing pieces of critical national security information. Preliminary reports indicate that some government agencies had critical information about the Fort Hood shooter from last year, Major Hassan, as well. Sharing information is not a matter of courtesy. It is not a favor. It is the duty of the intelligence community. Lives depend on it. Structurally, systemically, and psychologically our intelligence agencies have not met this mandate.

To achieve a true competence in government and to adequately protect our homeland, we must have strategic cooperation and communication between government agencies. I have introduced legislation called the Interagency Cooperation Commission Act. This legislation, H.R. 2207, would bring together officials from the Administration, Congress, and outside experts to recommend legislative and regulatory changes to improve the coordination of federal activities for major undertakings such as thwarting terror attacks.

The U.S. has strong counterterrorism tools and we have bright and capable Americans serving in the intelligence community but the government has to use them effectively each and every time. Interagency reform is critical to achieving a zero-mistakes mission.

No 2: We Need to Make “Security-First” Decisions

On Christmas Day there were approximately 95 Yemeni terrorists currently at Guantanamo Bay, some of which were on track to be transferred back to Yemen. Fortunately, earlier this week, the Administration announced that it will halt transfers of detainees to Yemen. This is a positive step, but I have doubts such a step would have been made had a terrorist with a bomb not make it aboard a plane destined for Detroit. The Administration must go further. It must make “security first” decisions and those decisions must be proactive, not reactive.

I’ve long argued that closing the Guantanamo Bay facility would be a monumental security mistake, and I’ve sponsored legislation to stop this mistake. Bringing terrorists to the United States sets a new precedent for our nation – in the rights that we will afford terrorists in the future and in the security of our nation for future generations. Even the ‘low-risk’ detainees at this facility have the potential for further violence, as we saw in 2008 when an ex-Guantanamo detainee killed and wounded many in a suicide bombing attack. Just this week, the Pentagon released a report stating that 1 in 5 detainees freed from the Guantanamo Bay facility return to militant activity, up from 14 percent in the last accounting. The protection of American citizens and justice for the families of those lost on 9/11 ought to be the number one priority for us. Bringing these detainees to the United States places a target on our backs right here in our own communities.

As James Carafano, one of the nation’s leading experts in defense and homeland security writes, “[The Christmas Day bomber] must have been recruited by someone. He must have worked with a bomb maker. He must have had a ‘terrorist travel agent.’ That is at least four people working to kill Americans, and it adds up to a full-blown terrorist cell.”

Thus far, we only have one of these terrorists in custody. The failed Christmas Day attack will not be the last terrorist plot against the United States. America’s leaders have work to do.