Intelligence still the best defence against terrorism

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 January, 2010, 12:00am

US President Barack Obama admitted that American intelligence had 'screwed up' by failing to intercept the alleged Christmas Day plane bomber before he boarded his flight in Amsterdam for Detroit. Intelligence agencies could not 'connect those dots' linking Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab with warnings from his own father to CIA officials in Nigeria that his son had been dangerously radicalised in Yemen, with advice from MI5 that it had withdrawn his visa to Britain, and with specific information that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula planned an imminent strike against the US.

While he is reviewing his intelligence procedures, Obama should also look critically at the labyrinthine panoply of 'security' measures confronting airline passengers to ask whether they are efficient or effective, cost-effective, and whether they are damaging America's reputation.

Officials acted quickly after Abdulmutallab's arrest. The US Transportation Security Administration sent out another 'security' directive to make flying miserable. Politicians promised to use controversial full-body scanners and Washington issued a list of 14 countries whose passengers must undergo extra special checks.

The new measures display a dangerous mixture of arrogance, empty theatre, the idiocy of small-minded bureaucrats and posturing politicians. Weary passengers say they are prepared to put up with extra security if it keeps them safe. But that is the big question the security agencies have failed to answer.

Getting a sense of perspective about air travel safety is elusive because of the anguish of the desperate scenes of September 11 and because the crash of any airliner is so horrendous. In 2008, according to Flight International, there were 34 fatal aircraft accidents, causing 583 deaths - a small number beside the 37,300 Americans killed in the same year in road accidents.

Terrorism is not the gravest threat facing the world. But governments must be seen to be protecting their people. The latest measures illustrate that governments know how to panic to the terrorists' tune.

Body-scanning machines are controversial. They cost about US$160,000 each, meaning that airports must spend tens of millions of dollars to install enough of them. They see through people's clothes, and so may infringe human rights or pornography laws. They also emit X-rays, which some doctors say are potentially dangerous. Most important, it is not clear that they would have picked up the explosive materials Abdulmutallab was carrying. And who knows where and how terrorists will strike again?

Of the 14 countries US authorities singled out for special treatment, all but Cuba are predominantly Muslim. This takes the US closer to controversial racial and religious profiling. Does the US really want to antagonise more than a billion Muslims, whose help is vital to isolate and inform on the relatively few Islamic radical terrorists?

More than 2.2 billion people travel each year on scheduled air services, and potential terrorists may number a few hundred. But the security measures assume each passenger is a potential terrorist. All the evidence is that good intelligence is the best way to catch terrorists. The best airport security is at places like Hong Kong, where officials work with state-of-the-art equipment.

If Americans cannot trust their own intelligence and are not satisfied with Hong Kong-style 'smart' security, the answer is not to introduce new layers of checks, each with more potential for error. The answer is a directive that all passengers must strip completely, put on hospital gowns for thorough security checks, be separated from their luggage, to be screened separately, and given a knockout pill or injection for the duration of the flight. That would be a great way to fly safely without fuss or the danger of a terrorist attack.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator who travels 240,000 kilometres a year