Opinion: Who's to blame in Washington?

PITTSBURGH — First you are alarmed at how easy it was for a handful of uninvited guests to sneak into the White House and shake the president’s hand. Then you contemplate finding yourself on an airliner next to a terrorist like the one who breezed through security for Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. Soon you realize that in almost every recent security breech, there’s been a faulty regulatory component — an episode where some rule was bent, never been put in place or poorly policed.

At the heart of the fresh controversy about American security are regulators — the bureaucrats and top appointed politicos running the vast federal regulatory system — who bowed to the human impulse of figuring “it’s someone else’s job.” Or assumed that someone else “took care of it.” Or, as President Barack Obama put it in the accusatory phrase du jour, didn’t connect the dots.

On clear display this winter: Washington’s capacity for obscuring blame in the vast morass of the regulatory edifice.

Indeed, what’s missing in the capital this winter is folks standing up, identifying themselves, and taking the blame. The buck does stop with Obama, who revived an old Harry Truman line during a week of post-mortems on the underwear bomber.

But if the people under the president suffer no consequences there isn’t much point in the president undertaking an overhaul of the security apparatus in the U.S., because no one is in jeopardy of losing his job and because the nameless, faceless bureaucrats behind the winter breeches are destined to remain nameless and faceless.

In other countries, a high-ranking official like Janet Napolitano, U.S. secretary of homeland security, would be fired — if she didn’t quit first — if only to send the political signal that failures of security and intelligence won’t be tolerated.

After the Christmas incident, the global aviation industry called out Napolitano, arguing that governments must use risk-assessment techniques and better technology to close security gaps and focus attention on passengers, such as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and bags that are high-risk.

When there are regulatory failures in places such as Japan, it’s likely those responsible would be identified and then issue a public apology with a deep bow. In China, as when tainted toy exports to the U.S. were discovered, the head of the company making toys for Mattel hanged himself in a warehouse.

Then there was the 2007 case of Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of China's State Food and Drug Administration. He was executed by the government for dereliction of duty and taking bribes from drug companies.

Washington doesn’t operate that way, but perhaps the tongue lashing that Obama gave his top security people should be followed by a full, public examination of just how this unfolded and who was on duty.

Among the questions this investigation should tackle: How exactly was that information handled? Who saw it? Who should have acted on it? What is the unspoken protocol when a parent thinks a child has disappeared into the maw of terrorism?

This is not a blame game. It should be a public exercise to assure that the global public sees how the system works, identifies where it broke down and understands how it needs to be fixed. And, yes, maybe some people need to find other jobs, and not as Transportation Security Administration airport screeners.

In the sports world, people get fired when they screw up, which is why the Washington Redskins have a new coach this month — a story that dominated the capital for a week. In Pittsburgh, a football hotbed with impassioned fans who regularly call for coaches’ heads, it was big news when the six-ring Super Bowl Steelers fired offensive line coach Larry Zierlein on Jan. 6. His sin? Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 50 times this season.

The Steelers example is instructive here. Zierlein lost his job because people who were not supposed to get through the line penetrated it.

It doesn’t work the same way in Washington.

There are at least a half-dozen hearings already scheduled on how Flight 253 got to the security precipice. The typical Washington scenario, however, is to bring in a panel of higher-ups from the departments, allow them to answer in bland generalities about why alarm bells did not go off, and let them pad off back to their bureaucratic lairs. Nobody gets hurt.

But congressional investigators should demand to know why Umar was not kept off that plane when there are four separate lists questioning the suitability of threatening people trying to fly into the U.S. The answer very likely will show that, unlike trade rules and some regulations, airport security is anything but harmonized.

Regulators and the U.S. Congress have all the information they need to know the risk of bombs in planes is not going away and, since 9/11, the regulatory apparatus run by various administrations is not up to the job of staying a step ahead of terrorists.

It’s instructive that more than 100 reports on transportation security issues have been prepared by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) since October 2000.

One of the GAO’s recent looks at securing the perimeters of airports showed that the Transportation Security Administration had “not conducted venerability assessments for 87 percent of the nation’s approximately 450 commercial airports or any consequence assessments.”

Governments are much better at documenting problems in sanitized reports than telling us who failed to connect the dots and who should be kicked off the team.

That is why we celebrate the heroic passenger who foiled the attack on Flight 253. It’s also why we should heap scorn on those who failed to pull out the stops on the security front when the underwear bomber so easily faked out the system.

Cindy Skrzycki is a Worldview correspondent for GlobalPost and has been a business writer and columnist for 30 years.