Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Information sharing critical for airline security

Guest post by Jared Stancombe 

Jared Stancombe, a 2009 graduate of Indiana University, is currently an analyst for a U.S. government agency responsible for national security. He is also in the officer selection process for the U.S. Marine Corps. He lives in Washington, D.C. 

Ed. note: This is Jared's fourth guest post at The Reaction. His first three were on Afghanistan and the Afghan War. You can find them here, here, and here. -- MJWS

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Republicans are chomping at the bit to blame the latest terrorist incident on President Obama. They claim he let it happen because he has failed to take security seriously. However, I argue that it is much more complex than that. No one person is to blame here. This problem reaches into the depths of government bureaucracy.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was on a terrorist watch-list in the U.K. and his father called the U.S. State Department claiming his son had been radicalized and could possibly be a threat. Despite being on a terrorist watch-list, he was able to keep his visa and get on a plane.

This latest incident shows how the various processes responsible for protecting our nation have become outdated and insufficient. Information sharing between government agencies tasked with protecting our nation has become extremely difficult.

Databases with names of "known or suspected terrorists" [KSTs] have been neglected and are virtually impossible to query upon because bureaucrats with little or no technical skills manually input the data. Information systems are disjointed because of convenience and "ease of access" by senior government employees who have little incentive to actually learn how to use a computer. Some systems checks for these employees may take hours or days. Also, some bureaucrats may be unable to find the right information during an investigation or a data search because the data may be in another system or the data may be insufficient or too garbled to use. Bureaucratic "red tape" and politics may also prevent adequate information sharing as innovative techniques are dismissed because they do not fit into the bureaucratic framework.

These problems are not political problems -- they are technical, training, and performance management problems. Some of those who are in positions tasked with administrating the data, investigating leads, and notifying law enforcement when necessary simply do not have the tools -- intellectual or technical -- to do their jobs effectively.

For airlines to be truly safe, information must flow at the rate in which TSA employees can disseminate and analyze the data as passengers are screened. A cost-effective and mostly automated process that takes out of the equation the human factor should be created, such as a system that automatically checks various government databases when someone purchases a ticket and notifies TSA personnel if anything is flagged. Prevention should become the keyword of airline security.

Taking away people's pillows and preventing them from using the lavatory an hour before landing are not security policy, they are illusions of security. The Obama Administration has called for approximately $7.79 billion to be spent on airline security, but these funds are being spent on processes that rely too much on the screeners' ability to check baggage and items on the passenger's person. Potential terrorists can and will take advantage of any security hole, and information must be shared on who is a threat and who isn't and allow TSA personnel to make more informed decisions.

The key to airport security is multi-agency information sharing and training those across the agencies on how to maintain the integrity of the information and how to use it quickly. Having the correct information to make split-second decisions is critical in protecting airline security. With the correct information, TSA personnel can prevent attacks, rather than react to them. There is no excuse for a known or suspected terrorist to fly to or from anywhere in the United States.

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