Witnessing the horror of hurricane Katrina’s visit to New Orleans, Gulfport, Biloxi, and Mobile has left me shaken. This is not the first hurricane-imposed devastation I have seen. Hurricanes and earthquakes have visited America before — as have floods, blizzards, ice storms, and tornadoes — but never before have I seen so much devastation brought to bear on the United States mainland as has been witnessed in the heart of Dixie this week. We have become accustomed to watching the news media over-play the potential for disaster days before a storm is due to strike, and we take it in stride. However, sometimes they deserve the benefit of the doubt, and this time was one of them.
The new leadership of the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is reassessing its rules regarding the screening of passengers in the nation’s airports. After its dogged insistence since 9/11 that objects with points or sharp edges (regardless of size) were a threat to aviation security, the TSA is now considering reversing itself, and recognizing that the mountain of pen knives and scissors it has confiscated were never really a hijacking threat. Even more astonishing is a plan to allow thousands of air travelers with the right employment pedigrees to pass onto to airliners with no screening at all as way to reduce screening costs and speed up the boarding process.
Following the spending on programs purportedly designed to make our commercial aviation system secure, one is startled by two facts:
Few, if any, have been more critical of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) performance in creating and operating a security program for the nation’s 429 commercial airports — and for its timid leadership in enforcing a similar plan for the 19 thousand general aviation airfields across America — than I. Created in haste in an effort to restore the confidence of the traveling public in the security of commercial aviation after 9/11, the TSA stands as a testament to the hubris of government in believing that decades of neglect of commercial aviation security could be fixed simply by willing it so. Now that it appears that the departure of Admiral Stone as the TSA’s head will bring with it a reduction in the TSA’s role in aviation security, we must ask what future mischief is in store for commercial aviation.
With a budget of $47 billion to be spent on homeland security this year, I hope we will develop newer and better ways to prevent terrorism within our borders. Since 9/11, the ability of our communities to respond to an act of terrorism has been undergoing a needed tune-up. First responders and volunteers are undergoing training in techniques for limiting injuries from explosions and the release of toxic gas and biological agents; they are also being trained to handle radioactive materials in the aftermath of a dirty bomb detonation. We must continue to develop these and other skills for responding to both man-made calamities and natural disasters — terrorism is not the only source of injury that communities are called upon to respond to.
The fact that al Qaeda terrorists developed specific plans for the targeting of several financial institutions for acts of terrorism is significant for anti-terrorism planning — regardless of the age of the information. The question is not whether the intelligence should be disregarded because it was three or four years old , but rather what the appropriate response should be. Differences in opinion over the wisdom and motivation of the information release aside, attention must be focused on how to respond to threats of terrorism believed to be legitimate; whether there is any real value in a show of force; and what long term impact will such information have upon the designated target(s), and upon society.