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How Times Square bomber eluded police net to board plane and why it matters

May 5, 2010 |  8:46 am

FBI agents patrol Faisal Shahzad's street in Bridgeport, Connecticut May 4, 2010 after suspect in the failed Times Square bombing eludes capture by Reuters Pictures
We were lucky in December, when the would-be Christmas Day bomber who tried to blow up a jetliner from Amsterdam to Detroit bungled the job. Turns out the no-fly list had failed to keep Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab off Northwest Flight 253.

And we were lucky again over the weekend when the would-be Times Square bomber also turned out to be inept. Except that Faisal Shahzad almost got away with it. Despite the fact that law enforcement had his Bridgeport, Conn., home under surveillance, perhaps tipped off by news reports that police were looking for a suspect in Connecticut -- or maybe it was those huge media trucks parked outside his house -- Shahzad slipped the net.

Yep, he somehow got out, made his way to JFK airport, reserving a ticket en route, arrived at the airport, paid cash, cleared security and boarded an Emirate Airlines Flight 202 to Dubai on his way to....

...his terrorism home base in Pakistan. This was 10 hours after officials had added his name to the no-fly list. Apparently the airline's list had not been updated. As one federal source told the New York Daily News, "The technology can cause an info lag in notifying airlines."

It was only after the plane was cleared for takeoff when a solitary Customs and Border Protection official, the last line of defense, spotted Shahzad's name on the passenger list and recognized him as the bombing suspect they were looking for. The plane, cleared for takeoff, was ordered back to the gate, producing this dramatic radio chatter at Kennedy airport.

Already, the Transportation Security Administration has changed airline security procedures, requiring airlines to check the no-fly list within two hours of notification of an update if there are "special circumstances," like a terrorist on the loose.

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This suggests it was the fault of the airline, which seems a bit cheesy. Emirate Air actually notified Homeland Security that it received a last-minute request for a cash ticket -- a red flag in any anti-terrorist handbook.

Critics in Congress are all hysterical Wednesday over the fact that law enforcement officials read Shahzad his Miranda rights. Arizona Republican John McCain, New York Republican Peter King and Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman have all questioned the Obama administration over this issue.

But it seems to us this problem of the no-fly list is a bit more urgent. As former New York Gov. George Pataki said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" today, next time we might not be so lucky.

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: FBI personnel outside Faisal Shahzad's home in Bridgeport, Conn. Credit: Reuters

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