An Airborne Attack on America: Can Our Economy Survive Another?

For example, attacking an airliner in flight with an easily acquired plastic explosive is likely to achieve the desired goals of maximum terror and economic damage sought by terrorists; they have done so in the past. Such an attack would also help to convey to Americans at home and our trading partners around the world that for all of its power the U.S. remains helpless when it comes to protecting its commercial aviation system; and by extension its vital world-wide economic interests. For these reasons and others, commercial aviation remains the terrorism target of choice and the place for us to focus our best efforts.

On September 11th the number of civilians killed by terrorists using airliners as weapons in a few hours remains greater than the number of U.S. troops killed in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq since March, 2003. Since 9/11, we have spent approximately $18 billion to improve aviation security at home because we fear that the next major domestic terrorism attack is likely to be directed at our aviation system once again; how well we have prepared for it will be measured by whether it succeeds. If current estimates of our ability to identify and intercept explosives before they penetrate airport security are correct, such an attack is likely to succeed.

In recent weeks we have been reminded that the work of commercial aviation security remains unfinished. Despite its best efforts, the Transportation Security Administration, (TSA,) continues to fail to identify weapons and explosives in airports according to the General Accountability Office, (GAO,) and the Office of the Inspector General for Homeland Security (IG.) Last June, the Homeland Security, I.G. stated that today’s airport screeners are performing no better than their private sector predecessors did prior to 9/11. Two weeks ago the GAO reported that airport screeners failed to intercept planted improvised explosive devices, (IEDs,) at all of the twenty-one airports tested last fall reinforcing concerns about inadequate screening performance coming from Congress and others.

The traveling public continues to fly in increasing numbers annually since 2001 despite sometimes rough treatment at the hands of screeners; and new challenges await their resolve. TSA now has plans to shift its emphasis from searching for potential personal weapons to intercepting explosives. This summer it will start using behavior recognition and stereotyping techniques in screening passengers for suicide bombers and other terrorists. Travelers whose names appear on “ No-Fly “and “Watch” lists of thousands of suspected terrorists and their associates will undergo probing secondary searches. In some instances those passengers will be prohibited from departing by air or landing on U.S. soil. Other passengers will be randomly selected to be poked and patted down, have their carry-on examined by X-ray equipment and “puffer” machines; be subjected to canine “sniffing” by law enforcement or even find themselves being examined by “backscatter” technology which produces images that penetrate clothing in the search for weapons and explosives. And more new and improved technologies continue to be introduced by Smith Heimann, L-3 Corporation, General Electric and other technology companies.

Despite the political unrest evident abroad, our nation has committed itself to outsourcing often to parts of the world where a nation’s stability can shift overnight. We are also expanding our dependence upon supply chains for efficiency and cost cutting in keeping low priced quality goods and services flowing in from around the globe helping to fuel the American economy and high living standard. In support of our participation in these world markets, our second-to- none commercial aviation industry daily carries 2.5 million passengers and tons of cargo for transport to and from every corner of the planet relying upon aviation security as a national priority.

With so much of our economy linked to commercial aviation, acceptance of TSA’s inability to identify explosives is of great concern. Despite the billions of dollars spent on aviation security, greater investment in the development of reliable neutron based explosive detection systems, (EDS), of the kind being developed by California’s Hi Energy Systems, still lags.

Since January, 2003, all commercial airliners are equipped with reinforced and bullet-proof cockpit doors which when kept locked eliminate vulnerability to in-flight hijackings. The ability to repeat the events of 9/11 had been eliminated; our focus and energy must now be directed at preventing Pan Am 103 type in-flight explosions.

Reducing the burden of screening against hijacking allows for a stronger emphasis on explosives detection screening and a resultant reduction in the ability of terrorist to introduce bombs onto commercial airliners. Support by both the public and private sectors for better trained screeners and better EDS equipment to prevent bombs from finding their way aboard commercial aircraft remains a key element in developing a sound homeland security program.

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