Published December 29, 2009
The attempted attack on a Detroit-bound flight last week, along with the events preceding and following it, has provided a snapshot of the ongoing struggle to balance civil liberties and national security.
President Obama on Tuesday admitted a "systemic failure" on multiple levels in the run-up to the attempted bombing. Suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was in a terror database of more than a half-million people but was not on a "no-fly" list.
The administration has initiated a review of airport security and the watch-list system in the wake of the failed plot. But so far, analysts say what happened is emblematic of the struggle between privacy and security interests.
"It's just (an) inability to understand the right way to strike the balance that's at fault," said constitutional attorney David Rivkin.
Airlines don't have access to the government's comprehensive terrorist database. They screen travelers based on the smaller, "no-fly" list.
But Heritage Foundation's James Carafano said there was enough to flag Abdulmutallab for secondary screening that might have kept him off the plane, even though he wasn't on the official list that would have mandated secondary screening.
"Being rejected on a visa to England, flying without luggage, paying for his ticket in cash, young kid not on a student visa going into the United States missing this document, missing that document," he said, summing up the red flags.
Carafano said the similarities between Abdulmutallab's alleged plot and that attempted by "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, show U.S. intelligence is still not connecting the dots the government vowed to connect after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Obama said as much Tuesday.
"It's becoming clear that the system that's been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have," the president said, vowing to learn from the attempted attack over Detroit.
The Transportation Security Administration does have the technology that could spot threats like the explosives allegedly carried by Abdulmutallab. But the full-body scanner that searches for such contraband is only installed in a handful of airports -- though the TSA is planning to roll out hundreds more over the next few years.
The problem with those scanners is they are expensive and intrusive, and civil liberties groups have argued they represent an invasion of privacy.
But while Rivkin expressed concerns that screening is not as aggressive as it should be, he also raised alarm over the way Abdulmutallab was handled after his arrest.
"If this guy was treated as enemy combatant and interrogated as such, even with kindest, gentlest interrogation techniques, no enhanced ones, you could have at least gotten a shot at gaining some intelligence information," he said.
But civil liberties groups say that kind of thinking filled the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay with people the United States can't convict and doesn't dare release.
What's missing, some analysts say, is strong leadership at the TSA and the Customs and Border Protection agency -- both are still waiting for Congress to confirm the president's nominees.
Fox News' Wendell Goler contributed to this report.