Staying Focused on Security

When terrorists attack an American airliner, they are attacking the United States…. But terrorism isn’t merely a matter of statistics. We fear a plane crash far more than we fear something like a car accident. One might survive a car accident, but there’s no chance in a plane at 30,000 feet. This fear is one of the reasons that terrorists see airplanes as attractive targets. And, they know that airlines are often seen as national symbols…. The Commission believes it’s critical to ensure that those charged with providing security for over 500 million passengers a year in the United States are the best qualified and trained in the industry.

White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, Final Report to President Clinton(February 12, 1992)

The current debate on what the White House knew about the threat of terrorism of the kind that we experienced on September 11th makes for interesting debate on who, if anyone, can be blamed for not having somehow prevented the worst domestic act of terrorism in American history. But unless we can conclude that somebody in our government knew the time, place, and perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist acts in advance, there is enough blame to go around for all sides in the current debate.

If we knew when, where, and by whom all crimes were to be committed, we obviously would have no crime. Even if, as the White house suggests, we just had been able to “connect the dots,” short of grounding our commercial aviation system, we had no way of dealing with the serious threat to that system that resulted in the 9/11 catastrophe. Anyone with access to the World Wide Web can access the volumes of reports in the archives of the Department of Transportation complaining of inadequate security by its Inspector General; the reports of the General Accounting Office on the failure to implement airport security recommendations; and the reports of acts of terrorism and of planned terrorist acts against the United States, our aviation system, and our public buildings prepared by the FBI, CIA, NSA, White House panels, Congress, the Hart Rudman Commission, and dozens of independent studies going back a decade.

In short, after we get by the political posturing and moral indignation being expressed by our elected officials, there is abundant evidence that the same officials knew that our airports lacked adequate security but refused to do anything about it.

On September 11th, security at our airports was unprepared to prevent the kind of attack that occurred. Security was in the hands of air carriers that had delegated the responsibility for protecting passengers, aircraft, and crews to the lowest-paid and most poorly-trained private security personnel in America. Government repeatedly tested the performance of our airport screeners and found it grossly deficient. Airport workers continued to violate rules regarding restricted access to secure areas with impunity. Recommendations from within the industry, and from government and independent experts, to upgrade airport security remained unimplemented by the FAA.

The state of security preparedness on September 11th was so poor that, despite the expenditure of millions of taxpayer dollars on security, terrorists had their choice of airlines, airports, and targets, and they selected them for maximum impact.

The American people need to know why recommendations for improved airport security repeatedly made by blue-ribbon committees of both the Executive and Congressional branches of government have not been — and are not being — implemented. We need to be less concerned about what the White House knew about general plans to attack America by Middle Eastern terrorists last August, when there was apparently no practical way to deal with the available information. We need to be more concerned about what Vice President Cheney describes as “when, not if” the next terrorist attack will occur, and whether we’ll be ready for it.

Surely we need to be able to have reliable intelligence information on planned terrorist attacks, but because we are not likely to know more than general information about targets and timing, we need to stay focused on prevention. Failure to take reasonable precautions against reasonably foreseeable risks of terrorism raises questions of both liability and competence. Our government is charged with the duty of protecting us against acts of international terrorism. If protecting us is to be nothing more than warning us, they better warn us of that as well.

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