The 84-year-old father of one of my employees was recently detained at an airport for 10 minutes because he had trimmed the edge of his driver's license so it would fit inside his wallet.
Yet on Christmas Day, a 23-year-old Nigerian on a comprehensive terror watch list -- whose father warned U.S. authorities of his radical religious views and who paid cash for his ticket and checked no baggage -- boarded an international flight for Detroit, apparently without so much as a second glance. The bomb in his underwear nearly killed 289 people.
To me, the close call on Dec. 25 means the important lessons we learned from Sept. 11 have yet to translate into important changes. We collected intelligence on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, but as everyone keeps saying, we "failed to connect the dots." But how many dots does it take?
There are at least seven federal agencies responsible for keeping us safe when we fly. If everyone had shared information, Mr. Abdulmutallab might have been placed on the no-fly list, or his visa may have been revoked, as it had been in Britain. For starters, the State Department must require embassies and consulates to include visa information in warnings about suspected terrorists. We must review and strengthen policies for placing suspects on the various watch lists.
The Transportation Security Administration -- the front line of airport security -- does not have access to the most comprehensive terror watch list, which contained Mr. Abdulmutallab's name. By law, airlines are required to screen passengers, and they can only access the most limited "no fly" list. The government is working on a solution, the Secure Flight Program, which will give the TSA the responsibility to match passengers' names to the watch lists by the end of this year. It will also require airlines to collect specific passenger data so that people whose names are mistakenly on the no-fly list can fly again. The administration must expedite these goals.
We can also learn from our allies who have mastered airport security. Perhaps no airport in the world faces more threats than Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. Yet, the airport has avoided serious attacks for more than three decades. While it safeguards a significantly smaller population than the United States -- 11 million passengers a year to our 700 million -- Israel is sending a powerful message to terrorists.
What does Israel do differently? While the U.S. pours billions into weapons detection technology ($4 billion since Sept. 11), Israel invests in well-trained guards who conduct face-to-face interviews at each checkpoint. I'm not talking about profiling; the guards focus not on what passengers look like or what they are wearing but what they are doing. They are looking for suspicious behavior, not ethnicity. We should not rely on machines or lists but human instinct, honed by careful training.
Behind the scenes, there is a practical need for intelligence analysts to communicate in real time. We are still operating under a Cold War mentality. Currently, if a CIA analyst intercepts a suspicious text message and wants to know what the FBI has on the subject, he has to work up and down the chain of command in each agency. Our intelligence analysts shouldn't need to get permission to talk to each other and build cases against our enemies.
While we can update new technology to detect bombs and revise our screening policies every day, terrorists will continue to find ways to outsmart these technologies and strategies. Weapons detection and screening are critical components, but we can stop attacks before the would-be terrorist ever buys his plane ticket. We must re-examine the criteria for our watch lists, transfer responsibility for these lists to the TSA, revise airport screening procedures and empower our intelligence analysts to communicate across agencies.
Our intelligence capabilities have improved since Sept. 11. Mr. Abdulmutallab represents at least the 28th foiled terror plot against the U.S. since that day. All but two of them were stopped by law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I know that information -- and information sharing -- is the best weapon against terrorism. We have two strikes on us. When it comes to American lives, we must bat a thousand.
Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger represents Maryland's Second District. He is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the Homeland Security Subcommittee. He can be reached at www.dutch.house.gov.