November 6, 2010 | Commentary on Terrorism, Secretary Janet A. Napolitano

Secretary Napolitano Learns A Lesson About Safer Skies

"The system worked" -- three words Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wishes she had never said.

In the wake of the aborted Christmas "underwear bomber" attack, the administration shoved Napolitano onto the weekend talk shows to put a happy face on what was an obvious failure to prevent a predictable terrorist act.

The secretary did her best -- switching the conversation to how well her department responded after the plot failed. "Within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring, all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight," she assured CNN's Candy Crowley. "We instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas, both here in the United States and in Europe, where this flight originated. So the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, correctly and effectively went very smoothly."

Fair enough. But the tag line, "the system worked" was widely interpreted as a defense of the indefensible failure to stop Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab before he strapped on his BVDs.

The pundits went wild. Michelle Malkin issued a "clown alert," on her blog complete with a picture of the secretary wearing a rubber nose and conical hat. More than a few called for Napolitano to step down.

To her credit, the secretary took the criticism in stride. Even better, she took away a lesson: Despite all the resources poured into aviation security since 9/11, the international system remains incredibly fragile. Any weakness in global aviation safety threatens the entire network of planes, terminals, and accompanying infrastructure.

Best of all, she resisted the childish notion that commercial aviation could be made "childproof" by just dumping more money, more requirements, and more security on the backs of industry and the American flying public. The most efficient way to keep planes safe is to keep terrorists and their fiendish devices off the plane.

On her own initiative, Napolitano began a one-woman campaign to ratchet up international cooperation. Less than a month after the Christmas plot, she met in Geneva with the International Air Transport Association, representing about 230 airlines and more than 90 percent of the world's air traffic. She lobbied the International Civil Aviation Authority, which governs international civil aviation security. Last month, due to her urging, the 190 member countries of ICAO adopted a Declaration on Aviation Security. It raises the bar for adopting best practices to combat the terrorist threat to civil aviation.

More recently, al Qaeda tried to air-ship bombs from Yemen. Those aborted attacks demonstrate that the secretary's efforts to improve global aviation security were spot on.

Terrorists will never stop going after commercial planes. Gravity always works, so anything that brings down a plane is likely to yield catastrophic results. Any successful attack anywhere ripples across the entire planet. In any strike on civil aviation, innocents are likely to die. What more could a terrorist desire?

This time, a timely tip revealed the plot. Next time, we might not be so lucky. If we get complacent, sooner or later the terrorists will get through.

The friendly skies will always be a favorite target of terrorists. To do its job, government must get the terrorists before they get us. The secretary needs to continue to do what she is doing, but every nation must do its part. Smart aviation security policy encourages just that. It's a much better answer than tying up air transport with even more layers of high-cost/low-yield regulation.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Washington Examiner