Focus on the Human Factor

The July 29th editions of the Washington Post, USA Today, and even the New Zealand Herald are all carrying a story that airlines and security personnel have been alerted to the possibility of new terror attacks using airliners in a similar fashion to September 11th. The government sources cite an al-Qaida prisoner as having provided the information, which they state has been verified by other sources as well. Having been put on alert at the height of the travel season in the United States, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) now has the task of tightening security at a time when personnel and programs are being cut back. The obvious question is: Will the agency be able to do more with less?

Since the passage of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act in November, 2001, the TSA has had to overcome a host of formidable challenges in getting itself up and running. It has stumbled and fallen a number of times along the way. Today’s alert, coming from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), of which the TSA is now a part, will hopefully spur them into action. Over the past year and a half, the agency has been given some slack, as it was experiencing the same kind of growing pains that any new agency is expected to experience as it starts to come online. In addition, the TSA has had to change parent organizations as it moved over to the DHS from the Department of Transportation (DOT), and undoubtedly to needed time to adapt to a new chain-of-command structure.

To make matters even worse, the TSA has experienced budgetary shortfalls as an impatient Congress cut back its revenue requests, thereby resulting in the loss of some 6,000 screener jobs at the agency. Finally, the TSA has had more than its share of turnover, both at the top levels and in middle management, as federal security directors have resigned from key agency positions at airports.

Having said all that, you might think that what they have created in spite of many formidable obstacles should earn them high marks; in fact the aviation industry and most knowledgeable observers regularly criticize them for not accomplishing nearly enough. The fact is that, since 9/11, the nation has fought two external wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, and several internal battles in an effort to create first-class security on the state and local levels, and to stimulate a lagging economy. Because of that, it might be argued that the best talent for fixing the airport security problem has been lured away by bigger problems, leaving the TSA in the hands of managers with little or no experience in transportation security, let alone aviation security problems. Nobody ought to be surprised by the news that al-Qaida still has its eye on our vulnerable aviation industry. Terrorists around the world have long realized that maximum terror and chaos can be achieved by taking down an airliner. Besides, it remains too easy to accomplish.

A look at the current state of aviation security in the United States today is a very disappointing experience. After endless hearings and debates over how best to spend $5 billion, we have achieved no major breakthroughs, unless you consider doubling the size of the work force and dressing them in the same uniforms major accomplishments. After reinforcing cockpit doors to keep intruders out, screeners still seek praise for their collection of Swiss Army keychain knives and nail files confiscated from passengers so that they cannot commandeer airplanes. The fact that screening stations were established decades ago to intercept real weapons of the kind that might cause the loss of an airliner has been minimized by the TSA’s fixation on its “dangerous weapons” collection. And as the TSA continues to try convince us that it needs background scatter machines to peer through our clothing in a search for more sharp instruments, they refrain from requiring tens of thousands of ramp-side workers and their bags from going through far less intrusive metal detectors and x-ray machines, even though they have access to everyone’s bags, cargo, provisions, and aircraft cabins. The TSA continues to ignore this issue, as does Congress for that matter, even though arrests of cleared workers continue to be made for every imaginable crime, including the filing of false statements and documents concerning their identity.

While the technology of weapons and explosives detection continues to produce the solution-of-the-month for finding bombs in packages, the TSA ought to focus on managing its human assets to get them to tighten the perimeter around airplanes and keep them free of real weapons and explosives, now easily planted by persons other than passengers. Let’s see to it that the fox no longer guards the hen house by ensuring that only truly deserving personnel are given authority to get any where near an airplane or anything that is placed aboard one. Let’s start supervising the performance of all security procedures and systems to see to it that they really do work, including the procedures to keep cockpits secure in flight.

Hopefully, this latest intelligence serves only as a warning of what our enemies might be planning rather than a solid prediction of things to come. But if it is forgotten the day after tomorrow because it is convenient to do so, we will yet pay another penalty in blood in the future, as they are surely watching to see what we do.

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