Editor’s Note: The first article (“By Far the Greatest Threat to U.S. Civil Aviation”) in this two-part series focused primarily on the numerous security problems that have adversely affected the U.S. civil aviation community in recent years, and contrasted the U.S. aviation security processes with Israel’s much more effective security processes and procedures. In this second article Dr. Livingstone provides a detailed “laundry list” of recommended changes and improvements that he and many other security professionals say would significantly improve U.S. civil-aviation security both immediately and for the foreseeable future.
(1) Improved Leadership at DHS & TSA: When DHS (Department of Homeland Security) Secretary Janet Napolitano said that “the system worked” at a press briefing shortly after apprehension of the so-called “underwear bomber” who had tried to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 during its descent to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, many critics – not only political opponents but security specialists as well – said she should be fired. Three months later, that has not happened. It still seems obvious, though, that much improved leadership is needed both at DHS and at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). DHS also needs to be depoliticized – by, for example, the appointment of a senior advisor, not as a political reward, but because he or she is a career professional with considerable real-world working experience in civil aviation. What makes such an appointment even more imperative is that the new TSA director, retired Major General Robert A. Harding, has a long background in intelligence and is certainly a distinguished American, but has little in his resume to suggest that he is nearly as conversant on aviation security issues.
(2) Profiling: The United States should not only use ethnicity profiling, as the Israelis do, but make it the centerpiece of its aviation security system.
(3) Better Training for TSA Employees: In 2006, a man was detained by TSA employees in Milwaukee because he had written, on a plastic bag containing his toilet articles, the words “Kip Hawley [then the head of TSA] is aniot.” Legally, though, Ryan Bird, the man who was detained, was simply exercising his First Amendment rights – and, not incidentally, also indicating his understandable disapproval of TSA’s inadequate security procedures. The TSA employees who detained him acted in a discriminatory and wholly unprofessional manner, claiming that they had to investigate whether or not those five words constituted an actual threat.
Another problem, as far too many passengers have learned, is that many TSA employees seem to be both bored and unhelpful, and have neither the training nor the interest needed to do their jobs at a consistently high standard of performance. Various published sources indicate that screeners routinely fail, on average, about seventy percent of the tests conducted by undercover agents attempting to smuggle weapons components and/or explosives through security checkpoints. In private tests conducted in connection with the already ongoing 9/11 litigation, to cite but one example, box cutters were regularly overlooked by TSA screeners unless the cutters had been laid flat on their sides in the hand luggage carried by the agents.
(4) A Trusted Traveler Program: For the reasons previously noted, top priority should be given to the creation and implementation of a “Trusted Traveler” program at all U.S. airports. Even former TSA chief Kip Hawley strongly supported theea. According to Hawley, “We believe that a nationwide Registered Traveler program can provide expedited screening for many travelers, and enhance aviation security as well.”
(5) Hardened Aircraft: The cargo and baggage holds, especially the former, of most U.S. carriers are perhaps the most vulnerable sections of any aircraft. The Israelis have hardened the baggage holds of their planes so that the force of an explosive device can at least be mitigated, thanks to the bullet-resistant materials used to absorb the blast effects and shrapnel, and to carefully designed “blast plugs” that release the pressure in the hold. Another option is to use containers made of bullet-resistant materials. One study indicated that, although bullet-proof containers cost three times as much as current containers, they last four times as long.
(6) Improved “No Fly,” “Secondary Screening,” and “Terrorism Watch” Lists: It is estimated that, since their inception, the cost of compiling and maintaining these passenger-aviation lists has exceeded $1 billion. However, Abdulmutullab, the underwear bomber, was not on the “no fly” list, or even on the secondary screening list – despite intelligence information suggesting that he might be a dangerous jihadist. The number of horror stories involving so-called “false positives,” or cases of mistakenentity, are legion. Comedienne Joan Rivers, whose name and face are easy to recognize, recently missed her flight from Costa Rica back to the United States because her passport lists her as “Joan Rosenberg AKA Joan Rivers” – anentification that apparently was more than the security screeners could process. Moreover, even the late Senator Theodore M. (Ted) Kennedy was frequently stopped, despite the fact that he had one of the most recognizable faces in America, until he protested to the Secretary of DHS – and even then it still took three weeks for the issue to be resolved.
Among many others who were similarly detained or delayed have been U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, children under the age of five, members of Congress, actors, journalists, and just plain ordinary citizens with no connection whatsoever to terrorism. One would think that, for an investment of more than $1 billion, the various watch lists could be properly assembled and maintained – especially since the “no fly” list at the time of Abdulmutullab’s capture contained only about 3,400 names and the “secondary screening” list an estimated 16,000 or so.
Another area that needs reform is the State Department’s role in issuing visas. Abdulmutullab should never have been issued a visa to begin with, and after his radical views wereentified his visa should have been cancelled. The State Department has a poor track record in general when it comes to issuing visas to terrorists. The so-called “Blind Sheikh,” Omar Abdel-Rahman – who was linked to many violent attacks, including the Sadat assassination and the first bombing (in 1993) of the World Trade Center – was issued a tourist visa to the United States despite being on the terrorism watch list. The State Department later said that an error had been made in the transliteration of his name. However, he was not expelled from the United States even after he issued a fatwa, or religious decree, in this country saying that it is permissible to kill Jews and even rob banks.
(7) New Technologies: New technologies are not a panacea in themselves, of course, in terms of airport security. Yes, full body scanners might have discovered the bomb inside Abdulmutullab’s underpants, but it seems unlikely. Nonetheless, as so-called “sniffers” and other bomb-detection technologies become ever more sophisticated, they can and should be introduced at U.S. airports. But they represent only one facet of what should be a seamless overall security system, involving everything from profiling to watch lists, better visa controls, stronger aircraft, trusted traveler programs, and improved intelligence.
(8) Improved Intelligence Collection and Sharing: As with the intelligence failures associated with the 9/11 attacks, the failure of the U.S. intelligence community to anticipate andentify Abdulmutullab represents a major embarrassment, especially since the United States spends an estimated $75 billion a year on the sixteen intelligence agencies that constitute the U.S. intelligence community as a whole. Once again, there were charges of not being able to “connect the dots,” and even today it seems clear that intelligence sharing between and among federal agencies falls far short of optimal.
(9) Improved International Cooperation: The international civil aviation system is only as strong as its weakest link. This writer witnessed security screening in a West African nation where all hand luggage was placed on a moving belt – but was not actually screened because: (a) the x-ray machine had not been turned on; and (b) both of the “security agents” present were sitting on nearby chairs, smoking whatever it was they had in their pipes. What made that situation worse is that anyone who passed through security in that country was automatically inside the international civil aviation system, because one of the departing flights went to Charles de Gaulle airport outside of Paris, where passengers were not screened again and therefore could easily have boarded other flights – to other European destinations or even the United States – with little trouble.
What makes this problem even more difficult is that not all nations follow the same uniform screening practices – the Israelis, for example, do not make passengers remove their shoes. Moreover, both the “shoe bomber” and the “underwear bomber” were on flights originating in Europe – and neither of them was discovered to be carrying explosive devices before boarding. Considerably more effort must be expended, obviously, both in developing uniform procedures and by adopting common technologies to screen passengers. There also should be better and more streamlined intelligence sharing, and the international community should give careful consideration to requiring both Airbus and Boeing to harden all of their new aircraft in accordance with new uniform specifications. In addition: (a) Aviation terrorists should be dealt with severely by all countries; and (b) All nations must be required to comply with all extradition requests in matters involving aviation-related crimes.
(10) Speedy Trials and Executions: A vast majority of Americans agree that it was a serious mistake to “Mirandize” Abdulmutullab and many of the other terrorists apprehended in connection with plots against U.S. civil aviation. A key component of the Miranda warning is informing the suspect that he or she has the right “to remain silent” – but in real-life situations it is vitally important that a suspected terrorist be interrogated both quickly and effectively. Unless they are American citizens, therefore, terrorists should be regarded as “enemies of all mankind” – just as pirates were, under British admiralty law, beginning in the 18th century. Moreover, because of the heinous nature of piracy, it was understood to be a crime that, under the concept of universal jurisdiction, any nation could punish, usually summarily and with a considerable degree of finality. It should be the same in terms of how the United States and other nations deal with aviation pirates and bombers. In short, they should be tried, very quickly, before military tribunals, and if found guilty should be executed as soon as possible.
In the final analysis, the current U.S. civil aviation security system needs to be upgraded and improved at almost every level. The present system, according to one observer, catches only “the sloppy and the stupid.” However, a well-conceived and well-executed terrorist operation aimed at dozens of airports and/or flights around the world could potentially kill many more people than the 3,000 who died on 9/11 – and quite possibly might even shut down international travel and commerce for several weeks, or even months, thereby plunging the world into an even deeper and more far-reaching recession, perhaps even a depression.
Al Qaeda recognized long before 9/11 that the chief source of U.S. military and political power is the nation’s economic power – and that was what the organization was targeting in the attacks against the World Trade Center towers in 2001. Should the U.S. economy seriously falter, the United States would be unable to support U.S. (and allied) military and naval forces around the globe, especially those in the relatively moderate regimes in the Middle East that produce so much of the world’s oil. The United States should not, and must not, let that happen.
Neil C. Livingstone
Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.