Incident in Amsterdam -- Did the System Work?

by James Jay Carafano

The New York Times is reporting, “American law enforcement and aviation security officials said Tuesday they thought it highly unlikely that two United States residents of Yemeni descent detained in Amsterdam on Monday had any connection to terrorism…”  I heard the same from a very senior national security official. Still, dare we say the system worked?

From the perspective of the TSA, the agency responsible for aviation security, it sure looks like all appropriate steps were taken. Upon attracting suspicion, an individual was directed to secondary screening and his bags searched. When they found no hazardous material, they allowed him to proceed.  

Remember that international flights often carry Federal Air Marshals (FAMs) — especially on heavily traveled routes like Chicago to Amsterdam. With FAMs on-board, the risk involved in letting a suspicious passenger board goes way down — especially if the passenger has gone through secondary screening.

Still, even after allowing the passenger to get on the plane, it was reasonable for authorities to probe further. And they did. Checking the manifest, they identified another passenger to take a closer look at — a most uncomfortable coincidence.  The Dutch authorities were notified. Given the facts known to them it is understandable the Dutch were concerned.

So far, so good.  Yes, there was one glitch.  How did one of the individual’s bags wind up flying unaccompanied to a different destination? That’s an important question, but one that must be directed to the airline.  (The feds haven’t intruded into baggage handling …  yet!)  Doubtless the TSA will have a long conversation with the carrier about just what happened with the bag.

When all’s said and done, it seems like security officials made all the right moves and took reasonable precautions. Yes, some travelers were inconvenienced, but that’s bound to happen now and then if TSA prosecutes its job with the vigilance and thoroughness needed to prevent the next 9/11.   

Still, we must remember that aviation security is merely the last — not the best — line of defense.  The best defense is to uncover the plot before the terrorists head to the airport.

This incident should show the bad guys that the good guys are watching. But determined terrorists will surely continue to dream up new schemes for beating airport security. 

The system worked yesterday.  But there remains no room for complacency in the war on terror.