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Columbia Missourian

COLUMN: Fear of flying? — blame the bureaucracy

By Erin K. O'Neill
January 13, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

Wasn’t the Department of Homeland Security supposed to fix this mess?

This mess being the epic failure to “collate” the intelligence on Christmas Airplane Underwear Bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. And there were more indicators of Abdulmutallab’s plans than there are health warnings on cigarette packets.  But only bureaucrats think adding another layer of bureaucracy will fix the problems with bureaucracy.

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“The U.S. government had the information — scattered throughout the system — to potentially uncover this plot and disrupt the attack,” President Barack Obama said at a news conference on Jan. 7.  “Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence, this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had.”

Hey, that’s super-comforting. Just to be clear, the American intelligence community knew that Yemen is a hot spot for anti-American terrorism. Abdulmutallab’s own father tried to turn him in as a potential terrorism threat to a CIA agent at the U.S. embassy in Nigeria two months ago. He was put on a security watch list in the United Kingdom after his student visa application was flagged.

And then it was reported that Abdulmutallab paid $2,831 in cash for a one-way ticket from Lagos to Detroit (with a layover in Amsterdam), didn’t check any luggage and didn't give the airline any contact information. And yet, none of this information made it anywhere near a no-fly list.

Even without the father’s warning to the CIA or the UK security watch list, isn’t this everything we’re supposed to be looking for after Sept. 11, 2001?

Now, TSA is trying to fix the security problems with more stringent and invasive searches in airports. Apparently, getting on an airplane is tantamount to probable cause for TSA agents to not only take off your shoes and search your carry-on bags but also to force you to submit to full-body scans.

This process only makes travel by airplane more onerous for the average citizen, and I see little evidence that it actually makes air travel any safer. Americans are xenophobic enough without having to face long, slow lines that end in pat-down searches.

There’s no way any TSA agent is getting anywhere near my granny panties, even if that is where Abdulmutallab hid the explosives.

What saved Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day from pentaerythritol tetranitrate explosives sewn into Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear was very clearly not the work of intelligence agencies or anti-terrorism bureaucracy, or even airport security checkpoints. It was alert passengers on the flight who heard the first small explosion, jumped on Abdulmutallab as his lap burst into flame, alerted flight attendants to put out the fire and prevented the PETN from igniting and blowing a hole in the plane, which would have caused it to crash.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab shouldn’t have made it on the plane in the first place.

Erin K. O'Neill is a former assistant director of photography and page designer for the Missourian. She is also a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.