Now It Didn’t Work

What a difference a day makes. On Sunday, Janet Napolitano, US Homeland Security Secretary, insisted “the system worked” when it came to the failed underpants bomber airline attack. Today, though, when asked whether the US security system “failed miserably”, she responded, “It did”. How come the change? Possibly, the outrage her Sunday remark generated on the Internet and on talk shows, although the main American newspapers remained respectful. Personally, if I were still in the newspaper business, I would have been lobbying for the front-page headline on Monday to read: “The System Worked?!”

Security Failure Again

When will the authorities in the US and Europe pursue an intelligent approach to airline security instead of the current one that has so far failed to catch any would-be terrorist at airports or preparing to board planes? Predictably, the authorities have reacted with more of the same in the wake of the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit.  Air travellers worldwide, especially those flying across the Atlantic, will now face longer delays at departure gates and greater restrictions on what they can take on to aircraft.

The new security measures will entail more hand searches, less hand luggage, and some airlines are going to require passengers to stay seated for the last hour of flights with no access to bathrooms. Good luck with that one!

The plain fact is that the authorities are searching for a needle in a haystack they way they are going about things. They need to be more far more forensic and better at communicating significant information with each other.

First, the fact that the would-be Nigerian Muslim martyr even got a US visa is a disgrace. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been barred from returning to the UK and he had been put on a low-level US terrorist watch list after his father had warned the US embassy in Lagos of his son’s activities and extremist thinking. He should not have got a visa with the ease he did. Far more work has to be done to get US immigration and intelligence services sharing information — in other words all the efforts so far since 9/11 to do that still are not resulting in success.

What other intelligent measures should be introduced? Profiling, of course, Whether one likes it or not, the failure to profile rigorously is hampering airline security and counter-terrorism efforts generally. Obviously, there are civil rights concerns here, especially when the US and UK authorities can be so wrong about people they place on watch lists. However, I am not advocating barring all people who are on watch lists from being able to travel — they just need to be watched more closely.

Another measure that should be introduced at minimal cost to the public is a voluntary safe passenger list — minimal cost because in the long run this will save money and lives. The details of safe passengers can be placed on databases so when flight passenger lists are being examined the investigators can place more attention on those not on the list.

Lastly, there should now be a tiered airport security list. Passengers flying from airports that are not in tier one and transferring on to other international flights need automatically to go through extra security during their transfers. I would wager right now that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab travelled from Lagos with the explosive and syringes and didn’t pick them up at Amsterdam. I flew to and and from Amsterdam only a few weeks ago and security at that airport was excellent.

Too Late

Last week, the Washington Times management announced mass staff lay-offs – possibly nearly half of the 370-strong workforce – and what can only be described as a scatter-shot business plan.

According to a statement by President and Publisher Jonathan Slevin, the Washington Times will expand one of the paper’s online sites, continue its morning radio show through syndication with Talk Radio Network, distribute the paper free to target audiences and some federal government offices, partner with its moribund wire affiliate, United Press International, in photo and online sales. Home and office delivery will be offered at a premium price.

The paper said it will tighten its news operation by investing in its strengths, including reporting on politics, national security and “cultural coverage based on traditional values.”

Will this save the news company? I doubt it. There has always been a debilitating tension at the Washington Times between wanting to be a respected general news source on the one hand and on the other a drum-thumping opinionated conservative movement product. It could never pull off what the Wall Street Journal managed in the U.S. or the Daily Telegraph and The Times in London: balance consistently straight, professional news-reporting with a conservative editorial position.

That resulted partly in a long-drawn out talent exodus going back a decade. The company at various times has had some high talent – Major Garrett, Nancy Roman, Tod Lindberg, Helle Jensen, to name just four – but lost a lot of good reporters and editors either as result of the unresolved editorial-reporting dilemma at the paper or because it under-valued staff.

Now the strength of reporting in the fields earmarked by Slevin have been eroded. There is little to fall back on.

The recently departed Solomon attracted some new talent, improved news-writing, stemmed the flood of opinion on the news pages, overhauled the digital offerings of the paper and launched an excellent news site. Alas, it is not that site Slevin mentioned as the one the company wants to expand but a newer site which is unabashed in its conservatism.

The scatter-shot approach seems doomed to fail – the central dilemma between its news ambition and its overt conservative commitment remains unresolved and the way the company has treated Solomon and the new staff he attracted will make any recruitment of big talent very difficult. And the paper has never been skilled in nurturing and developing young writers and then keeping them.

Further, it is engaged in a crowded Washington DC market: not only has it to compete for sales and attention with the Washington Post but also with The Politico, which has blended well digital platforms with a hard-copy newspaper and has mixed in its line-up conservative writers with liberals and straight reporters. Add to that, the presence of the freebie Examiner, which has a conservative editorial position.

Aside from the lack of editorial and news space for the Washington Times, the company surely is living in a cloud-cuckoo land, if it thinks there is any profit to be had from partnering with United Press International. UPI is now a ghost – virtually the last of its staff was let go in the summer and it has no contracts with U.S. newspapers. It has been reduced to a tiny web-site being fed by youngsters who are paid a pittance to re-write copy from other news sources.

So, the radio show and a conservative news-site is what it will be reduced to and there is plenty of competition there. The company should be thinking in a different direction: purely digital and build off its ownership of two film companies in Washington DC to produce documentaries for online and cable sales.