The big terrorist story so far this week appears to be another lucky break for Americans and the Obama team’s approach to homeland security. According to a variety of news sources, two Yemeni Muslims (yes, media reports they were Muslims) were able to travel to multiple destinations in the United States with “suspicious” items resembling explosive devices, including knives and box cutters in their luggage, and leave the country for Amsterdam before being held for investigation. CNN reports that the two Yemeni nationals were legally in the United States, boarded their planes separately in Birmingham and Memphis, but due to a flight delay ended up on the same plane in Chicago on the way to Yemen via Dulles, VA and Amsterdam. Dutch Police ultimately detained the two at the request of the United States after someone finally connected the dots. Why did this take so long?
American jurisprudence and law enforcement is based, in part, on the idea that the State carries the burden of proof and may not typically detain without reasonable suspicion or arrest without evidence or proof that something illegal has or is about to occur. Security implementation is precisely the opposite. Security approaches require that the individual carries the burden of proof and may not proceed without proving to an authority they have the right to do so. We balance these perspectives every day in our lives. For instance, police are not authorized to stop vehicles without reasonable cause, and you may individually deny someone entry to your home until you are convinced they are allowed to be there.
In this case, even though security scrutinized one of the Yemeni travelers for wearing bulky clothing in the unusually warm climate and was carrying watches and cell phones taped to a Pepto-Bismol bottle (resembling an explosive device), the traveler was allowed to proceed because there was nothing specifically illegal in his actions. Later, other suspicious items were noticed and at least one item was confiscated at the Dulles airport for investigation, but again the travelers were allowed to proceed because security agents and managers were simply unable or unwilling to connect the dots.
CNN reports anonymous resources as saying, “This looks like nothing,” and “We see no evidence of a dry run or connection to terrorism.” Homeland Security was clearly in law enforcement mode, not security mode. In fact, media reports suggest the only reason the Yemeni’s were detained in Amsterdam was because of a luggage processing err. When their flight was rebooked to Yemen via Amsterdam instead of Dubai, luggage was left on the original connecting flight, a security process error. Ironically, the Yemeni nationals were detained not because of their actions but because of an omission by the air carrier. Are the two innocents or are they terrorist agents testing security measures? We may never know, but we would never have had a chance to know had they not been finally detained.This news event may remain a back page story because nothing tragic happened, and perhaps nothing will turn up in a more thorough investigation. But my view is the United States has experienced yet another lucky break and I don’t imagine we can be lucky forever. To improve the odds, “Homeland Law Enforcement” may need to start acting a little more like Homeland Security and learn to more quickly connect the dots.