Desperate to defect attention away from Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano’s “the system worked” comments, the left in Congress is attempting to blame conservatives for the attempted Christmas Day Flight 253 bombing. Democrats charge that leading conservatives voted against $4 billion for “screening operations” including $1.1 billion in funding for explosives detection systems. Leaving aside the fact that bomb detection in U.S. airports would have done nothing to stop a bomber who boarded planes in Ghana and Amsterdam, the left’s attack shows just how off base their approach to national security is.

The most effective means of stopping terrorist attacks is to disrupt them as early as possible. Relying on bomb detection equipment to thwart terrorism attacks allows these plots to continue far too long. The Flight 253 attack was the 28th foiled terror plot against the United States since 9/11. What is notable is that of the 28 failed plots, 26 were stopped by intelligence, military, and law enforcement agencies. Only two were stopped by citizens on the scene— Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in 2009, and Richard Reid in 2001. In both these cases, America just got lucky—the plots were clumsy and the passengers and crew responded bravely and quickly. There are many valuable lessons to be learned from the failed Christmas attack on a Detroit-bound airliner; throwing more money at airline security is not one of them.

Lesson #1: U.S. Security Has Not Mastered Stopping the Threat of Individuals Carrying Bombs on Their Persons. This is a lesson al-Qaeda has already learned. That is why they tried the Richard Reid–style attack again—and they will keep at it until they are stopped or they figure out how to kill lots of people.

Lesson #2: Get Smarter About Stopping “the People Carrying Bomb” Threat. These types of attacks are hard to detect if the bomb can be concealed. There are sophisticated technologies that can find these bombs, but are they expensive, time-consuming, and not universally deployed at all international airports—and terrorists are already working on ways to defeat these technologies. Rather than spending billions of dollars more on airline security, the smarter answer would be to make sure suspicious persons are routed to secondary screening. These simple measures would still not be foolproof, though. Therefore, an even better strategy would be to break up the conspiracies that recruit, organize, train, and dispatch terrorists long before would-be bombers buy their plane tickets.

Lesson #3: Dots Were Not Connected. Fix the Problem. If either Abdulmutallab or Reid had been directed to an effective secondary screening or placed on a “no-fly” list, they would have been effectively stopped. In both cases, bad decisions were made and information was not appropriately shared. Abdulmutallab’s visa probably should never have been awarded or at least revoked. Arguably, his case was mismanaged by the consular office. Consular affairs are run by the Department of State, but by law the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is supposed to set polices for them. DHS has no such policy in place. Furthermore, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is supposed to screen air travelers, does not use the comprehensive U.S. terrorist databases for screening. By law, Congress requires TSA to leave screening in the hands of the airlines, which do not have access to these databases either. They are limited to the “no fly” list. These are leadership problems. They have to be addressed.

Lesson # 4: The System Failed. Abdulmutallab did not dream up his attack on his own. He 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. The fact that there was an active international conspiracy aimed at the U.S. that Americans knew nothing about is appalling. The U.S. has built up plenty of good counterterrorism tools, but the government has to use them and use them effectively—all the time. That is how 26 conspiracies have been thwarted. That Congress settled for only a 60-day extension for key investigative authorities authorized under the PATRIOT Act is appalling. The Administration and Congress have to start taking the fight against terrorism more seriously.

Lesson #5: The U.S. Continues to Put Its Citizens at Risk. Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition recently said that since 9/11 “the highest and best use of each incremental security dollar spent should have been on intelligence gathering, risk-management analysis and sharing, and on fundamental police work such that terrorists would never reach an airport, much less board an airplane.” But Mitchell and groups like the ACLU have fought tooth and nail against exactly such common sense intelligence/risk-management programs calling them “invasive screening” and “data mining.”

Body searching children and grandmothers and spending billions on super expensive screening technologies will not make Americans safer. In stopping this particular kind of threat, not enough progress has been made since Richard Reid set fire to his shoe. In some respects, this Administration is moving backward. It is time to reverse course.

Quick Hits:

  • Pressed by NBC News to justify her statement that “the system worked,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano backtracked and admitted yesterday: “Our system did not work in this instance. No one is happy or satisfied with that.”
  • According to Rasmussen Reports, 79% of U.S. voters now think it is likely there will be another terrorist attack in the United States in the next year.
  • Iranian authorities dramatically intensified a crackdown on the country’s burgeoning opposition movement Monday, rounding up political activists and seizing the corpse of one leading dissident’s nephew, in an apparent effort to stem further protests.
  • The Defense appropriations bill signed by President Barack Obama this month has 97 pages listing nearly 1,000 congressional earmarks.
  • Also according to Rasmussen Reports, government employees have a much more optimistic opinion about the near future of our economy than private sector employees do.