What Has Lockerbee Taught Us?

Last Friday night, December 21, 2001, I decided to watch a copy of an ABC-TV presentation on its 11-month investigation of the terrorist attack on Pan Am 103 over Lockerbee, Scotland. The program was aired in 1989 or 1990. As I sat in my apartment watching a tape I had seen many times before, I was unaware of the events that had taken place in Paris that very day, involving a suspicious passenger who was detained for questioning and then missed his flight to Miami.

As the world now knows, the passenger in question was boarded on the same fight the next night, December 22nd, with enough plastic explosive in his black-top sneakers to celebrate the Pan Am 103 event by a similar tragedy aboard American Airlines flight 63. But for the heroism of the flight attendants and passengers aboard that plane in thwarting another terrorist act, we would have all been reminded of the events 13 years earlier, almost to the day, when 259 passengers and crew, and 11 people on the ground were killed. I am sure that the same terrorist organizations responsible for killing so many Americans aboard an American commercial airliner in 1988 would have been delighted to celebrate the Pan Am tragedy’s anniversary by murdering another group of Americans heading home for Christmas.

After the bombing of Pan Am 103, it was learned that intelligence information available to the law enforcement authorities of several nations could have averted the carnage that took place that cold night over Scotland. But then, as now, important information was not acted upon. Enough information about this would be terrorist, Richard Reid, was available to see to it that he not board an American airliner; instead, after providing him with lodging for the night for having detained him, he was allowed by the carrier to board — and carry with him — bombs in his shoes sufficient to blast the airplane from the sky.

If these events had been part of a Hollywood script, surely it would have ended up on the cutting room floor. After all that we have experienced since September 11th, who either inside or outside of a cave would have believed that such a preposterous plot could be carried out? A 6-foot 4-inch swarthy-looking man carrying a newly issued foreign passport, a one-way ticket purchased with cash, and no luggage is allowed to board a U.S. airliner for America after being interrogated by French police and airline security with bombs in his shoes! Did the fact that the airplane with AMERICAN AIRLINES painted on its fuselage in bold red, white and blue letters might present a tempting target to America’s enemies not occur to the carrier’s security personnel? After losing three airplanes in as many months, has American Airlines not gotten the hint that it may be a terrorist’s target of choice, and that therefore it is time to consider becoming proactive about security?

So much for computer assisted profiling, sky-marshals, screening, and common sense. So much for the lessons learned from September 11th, for the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of November 19th, and the words of encouragement from Washington about how safe it is to fly now that we have troops in the airports. If we do not immediately replace our broken-down aviation security system’s recycled defective parts with security professionals, we will be trading horses on Wall Street instead of aviation stocks. Or perhaps Wall Street itself will become increasingly less relevant as our economy which relies so heavily on the aviation industry slides into the tank.

“Foreseeable risk” is a term used in the law to describe a threat that is reasonably likely to occur unless reasonable precautions are taken to prevent it. Is it reasonably foreseeable that a terrorist bombing of an American airliner is more likely to occur on December 21st, when America is at war against the same terrorists who did it once before on that date? Even O.J. Simpson would have a problem convincing a jury otherwise.

When two pirated airliners were crashed into the World Trade Center, and a third into the Pentagon, the airline industry’s first defensive action was to seek protection from civil liability and 15 billion dollars from Congress purportedly to stay in business. Congress coughed the money and the protection right up. Next, Congress relieved the industry of its security responsibilities in our airports by passing an aviation security bill requiring that the government take over the job. Then, Congress authorized billions of dollars to implement the new security bill. And then — Congress went home, the airlines went back to sleep at the switch, and those members of the traveling public who either believed that our skies were once again friendly, or that it was their patriotic duty to resume flying, bought tickets on American Airlines from Paris to Miami, only to find that they had to subdue a half-witted terrorist if they were to arrive safely home for Christmas.

Apologists will argue that the defects in our aviation security system cannot be corrected overnight. I would argue that those charged with correcting those defects will never be able to do it either, because they believe there really isn’t a problem, or that if there is a problem it is only a temporary phenomenon which will pass, or that it just can’t be fixed. They are wrong. Professionals can fix it, professionals will fix it, and the sooner the security amateurs get out of the way and let the professionals handle it, the sooner this country will be up and running, or flying, again.

The decision to allow Richard Reid to board American Airlines flight 63 is a case of negligence. Section 110 of the new aviation security act calls for the continuation of the CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Profiling) program, which is conducted by airline personnel. The program is designed to identify passengers who possess certain pre-determined risk factors indicative of those who may be a threat to commercial aviation.

Reid is the poster boy for that program. His profile showed a passenger who purchased a one-way ticket for cash, had no checked baggage for an international flight, and a newly issued foreign passport. In addition, Reid’s conduct and demeanor raised enough concern for French law enforcement to get involved at the request of airport and airline screeners. The fact that French police were unable to find him in any alert file should not have constituted approval for transportation for an American carrier familiar with the CAPPS program. The program’s purpose is to identify those who are to be subjected to additional search and screening for weapons or explosives. Reid, who met all of its criteria, was not.

Compounding the carrier’s negligence is the fact that the travel date, December 21st, should have alerted it to the heightened possibility of attack, and that the FAA on December 11th, ten days earlier, recommended that attention be given to the screening of shoes in response to the smuggling of a gun in a shoe in the Philippines. There is no excusable explanation for so many security mistakes on one flight; nor can an apology with a promise for better performance in the future suffice as adequate compensation for the risk that the passengers and crew of American Airlines 63 were exposed to on December 22nd. Nothing short of an immediate overhaul of the security policy, procedures, and personnel at American Airlines can hope to restore a sense of confidence in the carrier’s ability to protect the public from a clumsy terrorist threat such as this.

P.S. On December 26th, American Airlines refused to transport an Arab-American from Baltimore/Washington to Dallas on one of its flights because he appeared suspicious. The passenger, a Secret Service agent assigned to President Bush, was barred from the flight because the carrier could not verify his credentials despite his cooperation with the carrier’s inquiries and his offer to contact the Secret Service for them. After interrogation by the pilot, the un-named agent was barred from the flight.

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