Observations on the Christmas Bomber

Since there’s been so much discussion about the Chrismas Bomber, I want to avoid going over the same ground everyone else is. So as much as I can, I’m going to try to stick to lightly-treaded ground.

This is a failure for the terrorists. A big one. Think about it; put yourself on the other side of the chessboard and read this movie-plot description. Yemeni Al Qaeda has a newly-radicalized, rich engineering student who wants to strike a blow against the evilness of George Clooney and Vera Farmiga. Despite being ratted out by his father, the student gets a visa, likely because he’s “wealthy, quiet, unassuming.” Using the very clever tactic of getting on a plane in Africa and transferring onto an American flight, he has one of the most powerful high explosives known sewn into his pants. Before landing in MoTown, he — fails to detonate it. Think about that again. An engineering student from one of the best universities in the world fails to set off a bomb in his lap. Worse, he ended up with a fire in his pants, leading to many humiliating jokes.

Fail, fail, fail. Epic fail. Face-palm-worthy epic fail. Worse, the US is sending counter-terrorism folks to Yemen to help find the people who planned this epic failure. For them, this is just bad, and about as bad as it gets. Supposedly, recruit these guys with promises of a half-gross of virgins, not with burning their nuts off. Ridicule is one of the most powerful forces there is, and this is deserved.

On top of this, now that the would-be bomber has been captured, he is singing like the proverbial canary. So that means that the planners really should be looking for new places to stay, because even their allies will want to purge losers from their ranks, or at least not take the fall for them.

Yet, all is not lost for the forces of terrorism. The world’s security services have panicked and instituted to security procedures that will actually make it easier for the next person by setting up rules that everyone’s supposed to stay in their seats in the last hour of flight. But that’s pretty slim pickings for them. It’s not even as good as the one-last-shocker in the traditional horror film.

Defense-in-Depth Works. The major problem in fighting terrorism is that the fraction of figure to ground is between six and nine orders of magnitude. If you look at it as a signal processing issue, that’s -60 to -90 decibels of signal in noise.

Any detection system has to deal with false positives and false negatives. In the counter-terrorism biz, that means you have to deal with the inevitability that for every terrorist, you’ll be stopping tens if not hundreds of thousands of innocents. And remember as well, the times that the terrorist is not actually on a terror mission, they’re innocents.

So yeah, the guy was on a watch list. So are a million other people. (And yes, this is a reason why we need to trim the watch list, but that’s a different issue and has a different set of problems.) (And yes, yes, those million other people are only the US citizens on the list.) This still leaves the problem of what they’re supposed to do when some rich guy complains that his son has fallen in with the wrong crowd.

Here are some hard questions: Do we search every kid who pissed off a relative? Do we search everyone who ever went to Yemen? Damascus? How about people who change planes? Travel in carry-on? Have funny underwear?

The answer is that we can’t do that, and even if we do, we merely teach the bad guys how to adapt. The point of defense-in-depth is that you stack a series of defenses, each of which is only a partial solution and the constellation of them works, not any given one. Airport screening worked some — he didn’t get in a good detonator. Passenger resistance worked some — once there was a firecracker-like explosion and a fire, they saved the plane. Defense-in-depth in toto worked.

This is not the reason to disband DHS. This is not the reason to sack Napolitano. Note that I did not say that DHS shouldn’t be disbanded. Nor did I say that Napolitano shouldn’t be sacked, merely that if you’re looking for a reason, this isn’t it.

If we look at what happened and think about what we could do better, DHS isn’t involved. The visa issue is the one to examine and DHS doesn’t give out visas, State does.

My criticism of DHS is that they flinched. They’ve put up these brain-dead stupid policies that are going to annoy travelers and are as likely to make us less safe, not more safe. They should have said that the system worked and there will be no changes so have a happy new year and stay calm.

I am willing to cut them a bit of slack, but if they don’t change their tune to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” then there will be a reason to start demanding heads. Sending people to Yemen was the right response. No headphones on the plane is the wrong one.

If DHS and TSA want to give people reason to call for firings and disbandings, they should keep doing what they’re doing now, not then.

Life is Risk. Keep calm and carry on is good advice for the rest of us, too. The vast majority of us are more likely to be struck by lightning while being eaten by a shark than we are to be a victim of a terrorist. Nonetheless, there are bad, crazy people out there. Sooner or later, no matter what we do, somethings’s going to happen. A plane will go down, a ship will have a bomb on it, a train will be attacked, or something will happen.

The actual risk of terrorism is so low that most adaptations are worse than the threat. More people died in traffic accidents as a result of shunning airplanes after 9/11 than in the actual attacks. After those attacks, the best terrorist second punch would have been a simple suicide bomber in the airport security lines.

When we wring our hands because we think that risk should be zero, we’re part of the problem, too. Schneier is right: we need more investigation and counter-terrorism and less security. Kudos to CNN and Maddow for airing a bit of reason.

So we should all thank our lucky stars that PETN isn’t as easy to detonate as we’re told. We should thank the same stars for passenger resistance. And we should breathe a sigh of relief for an incident that was botched so badly it’ll make others think twice or three times or more. And while you’re at it, don’t play with sharks in a thunderstorm.

4 thoughts on “Observations on the Christmas Bomber

  1. For bureaucrats, the low-hanging fruit of air travel security is to impose ever-increasing and suffocating restrictions on regular law-abiding passengers.
    Meanwhile, the coherent and unified information system that connects suspected terrorist threats with no-fly (or impeded-fly) watch lists remains unbuilt or disconnected. How is this abject failure to apprehend or at least to impede known terrorist threats even one iota different than 9/11?
    And the whole clusterfotched and thoughtless system is exemplified by airport security queues that are completely exposed and potentially more dangerous than any other spot in the air travel experience.
    Yes, this byzantine mess may have (probably has) discouraged some opportunistic air travel threats. But it is a security regime that’s mainly been constructed by and for politicians.

  2. have you heard about the sharp dressed man? i think we have to find out how this bomber got on a plane without a passport, before any measures are considered.

  3. @andrew: he had a passport, and a multiple-entry visa. Arguably, he should not have kept his visa, but he had all the paperwork he needed.
    As we learn more, there are places we could have done better. The Daily Beast has a report that the CIA had been alerted before the guy’s father complained.
    However, this is all Monday-Morning Quarterbacking. We should celebrate that things worked well enough, and look at how to do better. My major point is that this is a failure for the bad guys, not for us.

  4. When we wring our hands because we think that risk should be zero, we’re part of the problem, too.
    That’s un-American!!1
    Sorry about that. I debate people about health care and they think that no cost is too high to save someone’s life, when obviously we put a value on human life every single day.

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