An eruption of news has detailed everything under the sun about
the alleged Christmas bombing plot of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab
to detonate an explosive inside an airliner over Detroit.
Mostly, we've had a wakeup call regarding the shortcomings of
our national security infrastructure.
But with all the talk about the no-fly list and full-body scans,
the key lesson of this near-miss is being overlooked: Our
security agencies will continue to make the same mistakes unless
they are subject to continuous independent oversight.
This need was clear when I served on the White House Commission
for Aviation Safety and Security more than 10 years ago, and it
still goes unaddressed. Of course, a review is under way to
determine how a deranged man boarded a jumbo jet with explosive
material. Within a month, we will hear a broad statement about
what we learned, and a few security processes will be altered.
Details will be sparse, yet we will be assured that things are
getting better. But any promise of improved protection from
terrorists will seem hollow to citizens who have seen this dog
and pony show before.
Monitors must be independent
If this process — post-crisis reviews done behind closed doors
by officials who work within the agencies being investigated —
remains our primary method of self-examination, then it's clear
that real change in the system cannot occur, nor can real
confidence in it be restored.
To address such "systemic failures," Congress should create a
board to exercise proper oversight over the system. This body
should follow three principles to ensure improvement of
security. First, oversight should be a continuous process. While
a blunder such as this one surely calls for its own
investigation, we must ensure that our methods are constantly
being reviewed and scrutinized so holes can be plugged before
lives are put at risk.
Second, to be effective, oversight must be independent. When
each agency conducts its own review — CIA, Homeland Security,
and Customs and Border Protection, for example — often the only
result is finger-pointing. Furthermore, the appointees who run
these agencies and the civil servants who staff them have vested
interests that bias their findings. To hold their feet to the
fire, oversight of these agencies should be conducted by an
entity whose only agenda is independent investigation.
Finally, oversight must ensure that relevant agencies are held
accountable to the public. This does not mean disseminating
sensitive information and jeopardizing our security system, but
rather shining a light on the broader picture of how well it is
functioning. As long as they are shrouded in secrecy, those
charged with our protection can evade public criticism — an
important incentivizing mechanism. Balance must be struck
between confidentiality and responsible reporting, so that the
taxpayers and travelers who fund the system are part of the
The Obama administration and Congress should create an entity
that oversees our security with continuity, independence and
public accountability. While chairman of the National
Transportation Safety Board, an organization founded by Congress
on these principles, I saw them help create and maintain the
world's safest aviation system. And while the challenges to our
national security are unique, a change is clearly needed.
Oversight is a tried and true method for improvement, and, I
believe, the very shot in the arm that our ailing security