Commercial aviation remains as safe as ever – or to put it another way, it was never really safe from intentional acts of sabotage, hijacking and in-flight violence; clearly not much has changed. The most recent report on airport security reveals that all manner of contraband continues to get through the eight billion dollar security program designed to prevent terrorists from striking our commercial aviation system.
Once again the TSA, hastily created within 90 days after the events of 9/11, will respond to an embarrassing Inspector General’s report with reassurances that the system works notwithstanding the failure of TSA to prevent explosives and weapons from getting through the screening process a staggering ninety-six percent of the time in tests conducted by Homeland Security investigators. Not only has the agency been penetrated in detection tests, but a follow-up report has also identified seventy-three employees whose names appear on the FBI’s Terrorism Watch List, were vetted by TSA, and have been approved for sensitive roles on various levels of TSA’s layered security program, the backbone of TSA’s commercial aviation security system. What is also disturbing is the fact that the media seems shocked and surprised by these repeat TSA blunders, despite having reported on the same or similar errors many times since the creation of the Agency.
Pan Am 103 was blown to pieces over Lockerbee, Scotland by a bomb set to go off at 30,000 feet. The bomb had been placed inside a portable radio packed in checked baggage on the flight from London to New York on December 21, 1988. Aviation security has focused on checked passenger bags and cargo carried aboard commercial airliners ever since. For the most part, luggage and cargo are subjected to various forms of x-ray and bomb trace examination designed to identify anything that looks, smells, or has the density of an explosive. X-ray technology, has become the principal method for protecting against explosives on board airliners. But as investigation by Homeland Security consistently demonstrates it remains ineffective.
In the years following Lockerbee, frustration raised over frequent maintenance and reliability issues of x-ray and trace detection equipment resulted in a number of airports resisting the installation of the cumbersome and unpopular x-ray screening equipment citing slow downs in the processing of air passengers. In addition, the increase in airliner hijackings became the aviation security issue of the day, and the focus of air carriers and government was directed away from bomb detection to weapons detection, and from checked passenger baggage to carry-on baggage and the passengers themselves.
In addition, the problem of air hijacking, which had become an issue with politically motivated criminal fugitives seeking to escape prosecution in the United States by seeking asylum in Cuba, was suddenly resolved by treaty when Cuba agreed to no longer accept asylum seekers who hijacked commercial airliners as a means of escaping prosecution. But hijacking continued with Islamic terrorists taking over a number of American flag carriers with goals ranging from aircraft ransom to execution of U.S. military and selected civilian passengers. In addition, a number of terrorist attacks on American military installations and personnel in Beiruit, against the USS Cole, on a disco in Germany catering to U.S. military personnel, and on the World Trade Center in New York in 1993 raised the foreseeability that the success of the Pan Am attack by Middle Eastern terrorists would very likely result in a deadly attack from multiple hijacked airliners within the United States with the hijacked airliners themselves serving as weapons of mass destruction.
America’s obvious shock and anger over the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. by four hijacked airliners raised the obvious question of how such an event was possible and who was at fault in not preventing it. An article entitled, “Security Up in the Air”, published in Security Management magazine in 2000, a leading security industry magazine, a year before the 9/11attacks, generated media interest over its focus on four major areas of weakness in America’s airport security program. What had not appeared in the article was that on August 1, 2011, as a result of having written the article, the author was asked to speak at a conference on Aviation Security in San Francisco. At a pre-conference seminar on the effectiveness of airport security, the author raised the suggestion of the use of hijacked commercial airliners as missiles flying into buildings and monuments in the United States with terrorists at the controls. The presentation was received politely but skeptically. Most in attendance did not believe such an event likely given the level of airport security in place across America. But in little more than a month, the inconceivable notion of Islamic terrorists actually commandeering four airliners filled with passengers and using them as missiles in attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. was no longer just speculation. The fact that these terrorists were not representative of any single foreign nation but were rather tied together through their radical Islamic beliefs raised the issue of the relationship between the need for vigorous profiling in passenger screening and how best to lawfully create an aviation security system in which lawful screening for terrorists could be employed without focusing on gender, nationality, religion or race in combination with other relevant factors such as travel patterns and reliable background characteristics became the next challenge. A challenge that has led to No-Fly lists and Watch Lists that today contain more than four hundred thousand names of Americans and other lawful residents of the United States many of whom have found employment in our airports, airlines and other service providers that make up our civilian aviation system.
How many commercial airliners loaded with technology designed to maintain constant communication with the ground will nevertheless simply disappear never to be seen again as has recently happened? When will we be able to stop a deranged pilot from intentionally flying his passengers into a mountainside because of the failure of airlines to recognize essential bonafide, medical occupational qualifications? Will commercial airliners ever be outfitted with missile avoidance systems so they don’t become pawns in tyrannical conflicts such as exist Ukraine and Russia? How many more ways will we develop to search passenger bags, penetrate clothing and examine passenger’s bodies in a quest for contraband before we consider that the search itself is unrelated to preventing a hijacking if we install the ability to control an airliner from the ground? How many more pen knives, perfume bottles, blunt instruments, and pointy objects will need to be collected before we accept that endless harmless items can be converted into weapons when in the hands of a trained villain but none can cause an aircraft to explode in mid-air, crash into the heart of a major city or destroy a nations economy by destroying its electrical power grids or forcing a shut down of its commercial aviation industry the heart of international commerce.
Each year that we spend $8 billion on an army of untrained and unarmed aviation security personnel focused on the wrong goals, we build in time for our enemies to deliver a crippling blow against our nation and what is left of the free world. The time to counter the efforts being made against us is now.