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THOMAS: Failed attack shows flaws in security

Had it not been for a malfunctioning detonator, nearly 300 people traveling on a Christmas Day flight might have perished. Only the faulty device, along with some fast-acting passengers, prevented a disaster.

But the detonator was not the only malfunction in this near-catastrophe. Government also broke down. The suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has been on a watch list for the last two years. That list contains names of people known to have extremist links.

British press reports say Abdulmutallab has been on MI5's radar but was deemed insufficiently threatening to warrant surveillance. Still, he was barred from returning to Britain earlier this year, according to the London Times.

I was once on a watch list because my name is similar to that of someone wanted by the law. It is inconceivable that someone with a real terrorism profile could get on a plane bound for the United States with explosives strapped to his body and not be detected. When I was on a list, my identification was taken into a back room where calls were made to determine I was not the one they were looking for. Sometimes a series of S's would be stamped on my boarding pass. This did not qualify me for a free drink or an upgrade, but an intimate pat-down, along with a complete search of my carry-on bag. I had to turn on my laptop computer to prove it was not an explosive device.

How did Abdulmutallab, whose father had recently warned State Department officials about his son's radical beliefs and extremist connections, get on a plane bound for Detroit? What good is it to report suspicious behavior, as the Department of Homeland Security repeatedly urges us to do, if those reports are not taken more seriously?

Did America's reluctance to profile contribute to this latest near-disaster? That question should be among many asked at a congressional hearing.

Abdulmutallab is said to have traveled to the failed state of Yemen, where he acquired his explosive device and received training for the attack he nearly pulled off. The Obama administration is sending several Guantanamo detainees to Yemen. This is the equivalent of the Coolidge administration sending New York Mafia members to Chicago for re-education during the Roaring Twenties.

Richard Clarke, former terrorism czar and now an ABC News consultant, told the network that the screening devices in Nigeria and at other airports need to be upgraded to more modern systems that penetrate clothing and reveal internal organs. They are expensive and intrusive and certain ‘‘civil liberties'' groups might go to court to block them. Abdulmutallab's profile should have extended beyond his religion. Press reports say he paid $3,000 cash for his ticket and checked no bags. Some of the 9-11 hijackers paid cash for their tickets and checked no luggage.

This latest incident and the killings at Fort Hood, Texas, by a Muslim Army officer ought to be a verdict on the Obama administration's strategy of apologizing for America and reaching out to Muslim nations. None of it has mollified terrorist states or terrorists operating within those states, or for that matter potential terrorists operating within the U.S.

Administration officials have acknowledged the strong likelihood of terrorist cells in the United States. The question should not be how to make terrorists like us, but how to find them, eliminate them and, most important of all, keep them from entering the country in the first place.

The Obama administration, like the Clinton administration, continues to view terrorists as criminals who ought to be subject to the American judicial system. In fact, they are soldiers in a war unlike any this country has ever faced. Until we start treating these people as soldiers and not criminals, there will be more incidents like this, as there have been previous ones. Without a serious approach to domestic terrorism, the next attempted attack on an airliner might succeed, as did the ones during another less serious time that gave us 9-11.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas at calthomas@tribune.com.