By Michael Hammerschlag 2450 wd
The battle in Afghanistan, despite the bravery of our troops, isn’t really a war- for the last 15 years our dominance has been so complete that we simply annihilate our designated enemies. This war, as the President warned, would be fought at home- by bystanders and victimized innocents. If so, they are still mostly defenseless, because the security measures taken to defend the air transport system have been pitifully lacking. From the beginning the foolish conclusion was that the problem wasn’t bad people getting on planes, it was weapons; so little old ladies and pilots were terrorized for their nail clippers without any thought or reason. Weapons, though, can be made from anything- a plastic knife, a rope to strangle, a pen, a baggage cart. 5 burly hijackers might not even need weapons. The screening was promiscuous, stupid, overwhelming- not directed towards likely threats, so mostly wasted. The only solution is armed skymarshals.
Meanwhile, while pilots were subject to humiliating searches by minimum wage screeners; 3 million unsearched and unscreened checked bags a day were dumped into the holds; and 600,000 ramp workers- cabin cleaners, gas refuelers, caterers, cargo haulers + mechanics, were allowed access to planes with NO daily security check. “It is assumed, dangerous as it may be, that if you’ve issued that badge to a person, they have successfully undergone a background check of the last 10 years,” says FAA Northwest rep Mike Fergus, though he’s talking about new regulations that are just now finishing checking current employees. Although the law says all bags must be inspected by end of the year, that’s impossible, unless Congress and the FAA take radical action. When Transportation Secretary Mineta admitted they wouldn’t be able to make the impossible Jan 17th deadline, he was pilloried instead of given the funding and power necessary, so he just changed the rules to call passenger bag-matching “screening”. The new Transportation Security Administration, created Nov 16, has only been allotted $1.5 bil. of the $3-8 bil. they need for airport security; it is supposed to be paid for by the $2.50 a flight segment fee started Feb. 1, which should bring in about $2 billion a year. This could rise to $5 a segment. Bush’s massive new proposed $38 billion homeland security budget also requests $4.8 bil. for airline security.
There are only 162 of the CT scanners ($ .7 to 1.4 million) used to detect explosives installed in the US, but some 2200 more are needed to scan all bags. 90% of these machines are made by one company- Invision, which has been turning out only 8 a month but claims it could make 50. Another company-L3, could make 40 a month, so if they both instantly had the orders, funding, and facilities- it would still take over 2 years. But 4 ½ months after the bombings, according to Invision spokesman Alisa Hicks, “There have been no new orders as a result of 9-11.” There is a $16 mil order that was in the works before that time, but the massive urgent order from Dept. of Transportation hasn’t materialized- they finally did order 100 machines and the parts to make 300 more on March 5, a half year after 9-11. They also ordered 10 more for test-bed airport San Francisco, which now screens 20% of checked bags with it’s 13 machines, but the average across the US is under 9%. “SFO ordered CTX’s directly on their own”, said Hicks. Dallas has 30 of the 78 machines needed. Only 55 airports out of 455 even have bomb detector machines, which search for the densities of plastic explosives- now 100% of the time by law. 1 out of 5 bags will typically trigger an alert, which “usually can be resolved by the operator” by adjusting settings on the machine, otherwise hand inspection is called for. According to FAA whistle-blowing security tester Bogdan Dzakovic though, they were able to repeatedly sneak simulated bombs through the new machines. There are also bomb sniffer machines, that search for the chemical scent of explosives, which may be even more effective than CT; and live human MRI-like scanners, which tend to be too anatomically correct. Air cargo (60% carried on passenger planes), including postal packages, must also be screened or sniffed- Pan Am 103 was supposedly brought down by 8oz of explosives.
Forget the stories of hurrying passengers shutting down terminals: since Oct., a Miami Airport employee was found guilty for making fake security badges, then with his 12 compatriots deported as illegal aliens; a man arrested in Dallas had a fake pilot’s certificate, fake airman’s medical certificate, multiple passports and Social Security numbers; an employee at the LAX duty-free shop in an Inspector General’s test smuggled 10 guns, 7 blocks of inert C-4, and 4 hand grenades past Argenbright security by just flashing his badge. Inspectors examining security have been terrified ramp workers smuggling supposed drugs, which happened in Miami, would unknowingly put a bomb on board.
The truth is it’s a miracle that 5 to 10 planes haven’t been brought down by checked luggage bombs- Ashcroft’s much maligned roundup may have been successful in breaking up Al Qaeda cells. The lame compromise to allow bag matching to passengers (done for years in Europe) to substitute for actual inspections accomplishes nothing- if the fiends are ready to die. They even made an insane exception for connecting flights, but Ramzi Yousef (the ’93 WTC bomber), in his ’95 plan to blow up 11 planes over the Pacific, was planning to do just that- put bombs on planes that went from Philippines to Seoul, Taipei, + Hong Kong and get off as the planes continued to LAX.
Before he allowed the security screeners to become Federal employees (which 100 Senators had approved), President Bush was more worried about Democratic unions than untrained screeners- the JFK crash broke the stalemate. He supported British owned Argenbright security (which operates in 40% of US airports, including Dulles), which was notorious for their security breaches- they were booted out of Logan Airport after they were discovered to have a felony conviction for falsifying employee records and hiring felons. The February 17th TSA takeover of the passenger screening contracts will eventually exclude Argenbright security, but they probably need to hire their workers. The 28,000 screeners will not even be required to be high-school graduates, though they need to be citizens (forcing 25% to be fired by November 19th when they are fully federalized.). Republicans were concerned that as federal employees, incompetent screeners couldn’t be easily fired or disciplined. On March 4, the TSA hired a British co. to do Web-based hiring of the screeners, who are to make $23-40,000. One Congressman thinks it would actually require about 40,000 to cover new bomb detection machines.
The Skymarshal program has been another disappointment- apparently only a handful (2-6%) have been hired. A pilot, in a devastating January commentary says, “I have yet to see an air marshal on any of my flights and I have not spoken to another pilot who has (except those flying out of Reagan National Airport).” Like Enron execs, Congress ensured resources go where they are needed.
I have a simple cheap solution: allow local, state, and federal police to fly free anywhere - they know how to handle weapons and recognize shady characters. Train marksmen from larger departments in using low velocity fragmenting bullets in aircraft, and certify them. Police Departments could even donate officers for 1 or 2 days a month: wars should entail some sacrifice. National Guardsmen in the airport are another cosmetic gesture, useful if, as the pilot says, someone tries to hijack the airport and fly it into a building. I’m waiting for them to start firing into a crowded terminal when a late passenger races for a plane and doesn’t hear the panicked order to stop. Put them on the tarmac access to check ramp workers’ ID and belongings. Pilots, however, should be allowed to carry aircraft guns, and flight attendants stun guns, which still haven’t been approved. The USAir pilot led off in handcuffs said, “Why are you worried about tweezers when I could crash the plane?” Zero tolerance? No, zero brains. Pilots are not the same as everyone else: unlike ramp workers, they actually should bypass security, except for verification of identity. They are reportedly ready to strike over having to repeatedly go through tortuous security- including removing clothing and ripping the liner of suitcases- even Michigan Congressman Dingell had to drop his pants. Screeners, many to be canned under Federalization, are taking great pleasure in showing bigwigs how thorough they can be. Profiling is essential if we don’t want to waste resources and cause huge delays; a young Middle Eastern man doesn’t present the same threat as an elderly woman from Dubuque. Many airports are using CAPPs (computer assisted passenger profiling), which analyzes passenger’s travel history to detect suspicious patterns, but that requires positive ID. Supposedly 9 of the hijackers were flagged and questioned after they triggered CAPPs protocols, but none were stopped. Cal. Governor Grey Davis has just offered state police to function as air marshals. The job requirements on the Dept. Transportation web site for air marshals seem unnecessarily high- when they were last seriously tried in the 70’s, air marshals went half-crazy with boredom, since they are waiting for one in a million events. A much larger pool of part time and volunteer marshals would minimize that- the courageous actions of alert passengers and attendants show a huge level of training isn’t mandatory.
The obsession with weapons and torturing passengers, and the illusion of a foolproof shield is almost a pathology that shows how fragile we are, as is the determined refusal to talk about this issue for the first 3 months. Editors groan and say, "I don't want to hear this, my daughter is flying next week", security guards will shush you like they're afraid you'll scare nonexistent children. Every time they close down a terminal or airport over a single security breach, while thousands of unscreened bags are dumped into holds, I have to laugh (as I’m sure BL is, if he’s not a charred hulk in a deep Afghani grave- nothing would frustrate us more than this guy disappearing into folklore- the DB Cooper of the Moslem world). By definition, the chance that any single random security breach is an actual terrorist is negligible, since terrorists are so infinitesimal a number. They've put Fox police locks on the doors, infrared alarms covering the yard, vibration sensors on the windows, guard dogs inside the bedroom; and then left the garage door wide open (with the baggage). Worse, they changed the meaning of the word "screened", so that even Congressmen at the hearing on airline security were confused- thinking they actually were searching or X-raying baggage- when they aren't. They even asked ‘how many machines have you ordered?’ -incredibly Federal witnesses managed to duck the question. It’s true that TSA head John Magaw, who was Director of the Secret Service and Bush Sr.’s agent-in-charge in Maine + Texas, was only finally appointed in Jan, but the screaming need for these CT machines was obvious since Sept. 12. A program is in place at Baltimore/Washington and SFO airports to test different machines and screening techniques, as if they have a year to assess alternatives (they originally planned to install these machines over 8-11 years). It’s understandable that the TSA doesn’t want to be rushed into massive expenditures on constantly changing options, but there is some urgency here. However, the Defense Dept. official charged with overseeing FAA tests said, “These (scanning) thresholds have been driven by the inability of the current equipment to perform any better… If the thresholds were tightened by only a couple of percentage points, there would currently be few, if any [explosive detection] equipment certified at all." Despite reservations, CTX machines took about 4 years to develop- a feasible alternative isn’t likely to suddenly materialize in the next half year, and really thorough operator training may alleviate many errors. There are some problems finding the space and floor support to install the minivan size 3 ton machines in airports, preferably close to check-in. In committee hearings, the DOT Inspector General, a severe critic before, claimed to be impressed and confident in the security measures and management of the TSA, which does have a massive job- they have reinforced all cockpit doors, which may have saved that Brazilian flight crew that was attacked.
I was supposed to fly over Manhattan on 9-11 and did 4 days later. I’ve played out again and again what I would have done in a hijacking to assuage my rage at the terrorists and the governments’ incompetence. (The FAA might, if they had issued a detailed warning instead of the cryptic “beware cockpit intrusion” at 9:05am, have saved the victims in the Pentagon and Pa. planes, which crashed 37 and 65 minutes later. Actor James Woods claims he flew with the supposed hijackers from Boston to LA a month before 9-11; they were so suspicious he thought they were about to hijack the plane, but nothing was done. Tardy fighter planes had to fly 250 miles because we only had 6-7 bases on strip alert in the entire country. 9 hijackers were flagged as suspicious at the airport, 2 were on the terrorism watch list; one came in on an expired visa. In the ’95 Philippines plot, the bombers warned about members taking flight training.) I think I would have known it was a suicide attack right away- in a political newsletter I predicted a terrorist attack on New York or DC… last July. I would have loved to have been on Reid’s plane. The 911 attacks have probably cost NYC, the travel industry, the economy, the world- over a hundred billion dollars. Another mass downing of planes would cripple the entire airline system, divide us into separate colonies, and devastate the tentative economy, which was Bin Laden’s last instruction. In 2001 United lost $2.1 bil, US Air $2 bil, American/TWA $1.7 bil - they wouldn’t survive another blow. West German intelligence estimates 70,000 went through the Al Qaeda training camps, and they can’t all be as moronic as Richard Reid, who could have crashed a $150 million plane, but for a 50¢ Bic lighter. In the Gulf War we moved ½ million troops and equipment to the other side of the world in 4½ months, we put a man on the Moon in 8½ years; we can do this: take the proper defensive measures. It is true that the best defense is a good offense, but also that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure. We’ve reacted stupidly and slothfully to the brutal attack of Sept. 11; and the evil ones won’t wait forever.
Michael Hammerschlag has written commentaries + articles for Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser, Columbia Journalism Review, MediaChannel, Moscow News, Tribune, and + Guardian; was a TV reporter and a former travel agent. His website is http://mikehammer.tripod.com e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org