December 28, 2009, 5:12 PM — On this past Christmas Day, a holiday nightmare was averted when a passenger and good luck kept a terrorist from blowing apart Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it prepared to land in Detroit. While this story has a happy ending, we're left to wonder why the automated systems designed to catch such people in the first place failed.
And, make no doubt about it, they did fail. After first pretending that some how the systems had worked, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano admitted on NBC's "Today" show that "Our system did not work in this instance." So, what are these systems anyway and why didn't they stop Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, from ever getting on the plane with the powerful PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) explosive.
The main failure was that Abdulmutallab was even allowed to get a ticket and boarding pass in the first place. His own father had reported that he was concerned over his son's "radicalization" to the U.S. Embassy in November. What happened after that is where things began to fall apart.
In the intersection between databases, policy, and what's practical, Abdulmutallab fell through the cracks. As The Washington Post reported an U.S. intelligence official said, "It's got to be something that causes the information to sort of rise out of the noise level, because there is just so much out there."
And, indeed there is. His father's warning earned him a spot on the approximately 550,000 names in the TIDE (Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment), which is a database that's kept by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. It's a mis-named database. It's not a list of identified terrorists; it's a grab-all for anyone who might be associated with a terrorist organization.
Every day analysts comb through the list for people who they think deserve more attention. It's at this stage that Abdulmutallab probably dropped off the radar. A father reporting that he was worried about his son becoming involved with Islamic terrorists in and of itself wouldn't have been enough to trigger any more action.
The Counterterrorism Center then forwards a smaller group of names and information at 11 PM Eastern Time to the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center.