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Washington overreacting to air scare

  • Administration has ordered speedy reviews and instituted enhanced screening for some
  • Fareed Zakaria says the flaws in system need to be identified and fixed
  • He says there's a danger of overreaction by politicians in Washington
  • Zakaria: Profiling on the basis of behavior, but not on ethnicity or religion, makes sense

Editor's note: Fareed Zakaria is an author and foreign affairs analyst who hosts "Fareed Zakaria GPS" on CNN U.S. on Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m. ET and CNN International 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. CET / 5 p.m. Abu Dhabi / 9 p.m. HK

New York (CNN) -- In the wake of the failed Christmas Day airplane bombing, President Obama ordered speedy reviews of how the air security system failed and the Transportation Security Administration began enhanced screening for passengers traveling through 14 nations.

Finding the flaws in the system is needed, foreign affairs analyst Fareed Zakaria told CNN, but he said much of the response from politicians in Washington amounts to an overreaction.

"We have to recognize that you can't have 100 percent security, that there are inevitably going to be lapses," Zakaria said. "Those lapses must be fixed, this is not an excuse for anything, but we must also be careful not to fulfill the exact intent of the terrorists by going berserk as a consequence.

"The clearest flaw here is that when the intelligence about this guy was received from his father, there should have been some standard operating procedure somewhere where somebody said, 'Let's check if this guy has a visa.'

"That to me is the key flaw," Zakaria said.

"And whether that is a systemic problem or a human problem, I don't know. But that's the simplest fix. When you have some piece of intelligence like this, you check whether this person had a visa, and if had been issued a visa, you make sure that he doesn't enter the country without serious security checks, additional screening and perhaps the revocation of the visa itself."

Zakaria, author and host of CNN's "Fareed Zakaria: GPS" spoke to CNN Tuesday:

CNN: The Christmas Day bombing attempt has started a raging debate about terrorism and U.S. foreign policy. What are the most important things that we should be watching for right now?

Fareed Zakaria: I think the most important thing we should be watching for is the danger of an overreaction. It's important to remember that the purpose of terrorism is to terrorize the public. In other words, it's a tactic that's unique because it depends entirely on the response of the public. The more we overreact, the more we whip ourselves up into a froth of hysteria, and the more we are actually helping this tactic succeed.

CNN: Do you think that there are signs that people are overreacting?

Zakaria: It's been very interesting to watch. I've always worried about what would happen if there were another terrorist attack in the United States -- you know a backpack bombing or things like that. And I've never really worried about how the American people would react. I feel like life would go on. We're pretty resilient as a society, this is a huge economy, one backpack in a mall would not derail it. But I've always worried that Washington would go nuts and would overreact. And I think what you're seeing is very similar.

Life goes on for most Americans. In Washington, between polarization and media hype and bureaucratic wrangling, this is turning into a kind of systemic overreaction. I want to be clear. We should fix the problems that exist. Every system has its flaws. I'm sure this one has them.

We should figure out what they are and fix them but in a calm deliberate manner rather than take things wildly out of context and turn them into a political football. If you look at the way Michael Chertoff and Michael Hayden, Bush's secretary of homeland security and director of the CIA, handled it, they handled it in a professional, calm, serious way, which is very different from the way most of the political figures in Washington have been handling it, which has been to turn this into an opportunity for grandstanding and partisanship.

CNN: Apart from airport security, there have been questions raised by this incident regarding U.S. policy toward Yemen and what has been happening in Nigeria and London. Could you address those?

Zakaria: It does reveal something interesting about al Qaeda. This is not a vast organization that has great political support in the Islamic world and has to be countered with a broad nation-building effort in all parts of the Muslim world.

This is a thin networked organization with probably a few thousand, utterly ruthless, evil, fanatical adherents that is mobile and that takes advantage of the realities of globalization and moves around to the weakest point of the system and opportunistically finds ways to attack. So this Nigerian guy appears to have presented himself and they turned that opportunity into an attack.

What that means is that we're up against something the response to which is probably not about having vast armies and nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. And if were to move that now to Yemen, they would move somewhere else.

It means a huge focus on intelligence, counter terrorism, homeland security. To think of this as something that requires a huge infusion of military and nation building in several Muslim societies all over the world misses the point.

If we were to partner with the Yemeni government or the Nigeria government and bring development to Yemen and Nigeria, it's not going to change the mind of these small bands of fanatics.

CNN: Do you have a view on the wisdom of military retaliation in Yemen?

Zakaria: To the extent that we have good intelligence on al Qaeda leaders in Yemen or elsewhere, we should use whatever military force we can to do it. Obviously you don't want collateral damage because that tends to be counterproductive, as we've found in Afghanistan and Pakistan because you generate an enormous amount of hatred and anger.

But to the extent that you can do them surgically -- and we've gotten very good at doing them surgically, for example, in Pakistan -- I think absolutely, and that may well be one of the keys to the struggle.

I don't think it's the solution for the long term, but it's part of an ongoing effort to keep these guys on the run, to keep them on the defense. It doesn't mean however that you will ever get at every one of them because there's always going to be some new misguided fanatic that will come along.

CNN: What's the impact likely to be for other decisions the Obama adminstration faces, including the issue of Guantanamo?

Zakaria: I think there's no question that it makes it more difficult to shut down Guantanamo. It shouldn't make it more difficult to move people from Guantanamo to a Supermax prison in the United States -- other terrorists are in these Supermax prisons. Richard Reid the shoe bomber is in it. ... But the political reality is that it has become more difficult, and the Obama administration will have to deal with that reality.

CNN: Following the announcement of enhanced security measures for people coming from 14 countries, a number of countries have protested that the U.S. is overreacting. What are the implications?

Zakaria: I think it is probably not the most effective kind of profiling. My understanding of successful security systems, for example the Israelis, is that they do profile based on behavior rather than purely on national origin or ethnicity or religion.

The problem with those categories is that they're too large -- there are 1.2 billion Muslims in the world. When you're trying to find a needle in a haystack, adding hay does not help you.

If you were to do it on the basis of behavior, which could involve travel to certain countries, which could involve what kind of ticket you buy, whether you have bags, any kind of intelligence on activities that might be considered extremist in any way, that would probably be a more successful path. I hope it's the direction we'll end up in.