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Oversight is the answer to security lapse

By JIM HALL / The Tennessean


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 loop.

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 apparatus needs.


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