By Jeffrey Denning
This month my blogging colleague P. Jeffrey Black and and I were invited to participate in a Symposium titled “Aviation Security - in the Future” with FrontPage Magazine, along with three other experts in aviation security industry.
Reading the words of David Forbes, an internationally known airline security expert, Captain Dave Mackett, President of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, and Bogdan Dzakovic, a former Team Leader of the pre-9/11 FAA Read Team, was absolutely insightful.
You can sum up the on-line round-table discussion by these profound words from Captain Mackett:
If you put the panelists here in a room for a weekend, and gave them the authority and one tenth the money we now spend, they’d emerge with an airline security system that would be incredibly effective, unbelievably efficient, much cheaper and less intrusive.
That said, check out this snippet from Black:
If I had to sum up this country’s current state of aviation security in one sentence, I’d turn to a great man, Ronald Reagan, who once said that the most terrifying words in the English language were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.” And this is exactly what the American people heard from their government in the weeks following the events of 9/11.
And the government told us that aviation security in the hands of the private sector was the reason for the failures that occurred on 9/11, and as such, the government knew what was best for us and needed to step in to save us from ourselves. There was just one big problem that resulted from this deception, the government subsequently created a bloated institution — the Transportation Security Administration — and proceeded to stack it full of high-paid bureaucrats that knew little to nothing about aviation security.
The TSA then set out on a hapless journey to reinvent the wheel, even though it already had experts like Bogden Dzakovic and Steve Elson at their disposal, who could tell them how to adjust and tweak the wheel in order to competently enhance existing aviation security — and at a minimal cost to the tax payers. But the omniscient managers in the TSA knew better, and they created their endless number of “experts” and study groups consisting of bureaucrats, cronies, and chums, who immediately began to implement their new snake-oil remedies to solve all the problems inflicting aviation security. In typical government fashion, those remedies entailed throwing billions of dollars at half-cocked solutions and ideas, and when those didn’t work — just throw more money.
But for most of us not living in a make-believe world, where most high-paid managerial government bureaucrats tend to meander, any real discussion on aviation security must encompass the individual and independent elements of security that make up the whole component of ensuring the safety of airports, aircraft, and its passengers. One must study the Weakest Link Theory (WLT) and understand that any one of these elements of security has the potential of being the weakest link, and once broken, could easily cause a catastrophic failure to the whole component and system. Just look at the events of 9/11, and you will see the results of what happens when all your weakest links fail.
So just what are these elements that hold the entire aviation security component together?
Screeners - Billions of dollars have been spent on fancy machines, and devices to assist in detecting guns, knives, explosives, and other material thought to be a danger to the safety of aircraft and passengers (and that’s another whole discussion). But the efficiency of those machines is dependent upon the competent training of those individuals who are assigned to operate them. Since the inception of TSA, screeners have consistently failed most undercover tests in airports across the nation. They have routinely missed bomb making components such as liquid explosives and detonators, even when the undercover agents have made the items obvious. Then there are the numerous reports of TSA management officials cheating on the undercover tests by forewarning screeners of the impending tests and giving out the physical descriptions of the undercover agents.
Federal Air Marshals - This program has been wrought with problems, management incompetence, and rock-bottom morale, ever since this agency was assimilated into the Transportation Security Administration in 2002. What was once considered one of the most elite and well trained law enforcement agencies in the federal government while under the domain of the Federal Aviation Administration, has now become an agency struggling to control the hemorrhaging losses of its air marshals that are leaving the agency. With recent reports of the agency’s dwindling numbers, the dumbing down of its training, and the lowering of standards for new hire applicants, there is now a greater emphasis being placed on the armed pilots for the onboard security of all passenger aircraft — who now far outnumber the federal air marshals remaining in the agency.
Federal Flight Deck Officers - Soon after the events of 9/11, thousands of pilots came forward expressing their desire to be part of a program to arm pilots, so after Congress approved the program, why are less than 3% of all domestic flights protected by armed pilots? The program is overseen by the Transportation Security Administration — do I need to say anymore? The pilots have been made to jump through so many tight rings by TSA, that most have chosen not to even bother with the program. Some of the issues include forcing the pilots to carry their weapons in boxes and unsafe holsters, subjecting applicants to drawn-out TSA-administered background investigations, inconsistent and error-prone psychological examinations, and requiring pilots to attend an academy — at their own expense — located in a remote training location in the New Mexico desert.
Airport Employees - There have been millions of tax dollars spent on ensuring that passengers are screened properly in order to prevent the introduction of unauthorized and dangerous items into the secured areas of the airport. But most people would be horrified to know that at most airports, the employees are not subjected to screening. In February 2007, an air marshal went public on ABC News exposing that airport employees, along with their bags and backpacks, were not being screened prior to entering the secured areas of the airport. TSA responded that it was not a concern because all airport employees were subjected to “extended background checks,” which by the way, only ensure the employee hasn’t committed any serious crimes previously. Just two weeks later, two Orlando airport employees, that were not searched prior to entering the secured area, used their access privileges to successfully smuggle 14 guns onto a passenger airplane.
Airport Perimeter Security - It makes no sense to highly restrict the movement of passengers inside an airport, but fail to control access to the tarmac and runways where many aircraft sit unattended with their doors wide open. Even today, a novice can sit by any terminal gate and obtain the door combination lock codes when an airline employee carelessly enters the code without taking any precautions to avoid its detection by onlookers. But one does not really need to gain access to a sitting aircraft from the terminal — instead they can just walk or drive their personal vehicle right up to the airplanes sitting at the gates. Impossible you say? Just two months ago, a man was able to drive his van onto the airplane tarmac at Seattle airport. He later stated that he took a wrong turn, was never challenged, and nobody seemed to care he was driving around near the terminal and airplanes. A similar incident happened a month earlier at the Miami airport, where an elderly man became disoriented and drove his vehicle onto the airport tarmac and eventually ended up driving down the main runway thinking it was a main road!
Cargo Security - Because the screening of air cargo on planes is a small fraction compared to the screening of passengers, there is a great risk of explosives or other types of incendiary devices making their way onto aircraft via the cargo holds underneath the aircraft, as was the case in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. In addition, there is also the risk of actually hijacking a cargo only aircraft. In April of 1994, a terminated Fed Ex employee attempted to hijack Fed Ex flight 705 and seriously injured the pilots. Fortunately, the crew were able to eventually subdue the hijacker and gain back control of the aircraft. It was later determined that the employee’s intention was to commit suicide by flying the plane into the Fed Ex building, which would have possibly resulted in the killing of hundreds of people.
Intra-Agency Communication - Government agencies are unable to share vital and timely information with each other, as long as they continue to construct walls between them. Many believe that prior to 9/11, “The Wall” that stood between the intelligence and law enforcement communities, was a catalyst to the terror attacks. There are numerous reasons why one agency refuses to share information with another, from the fear of being scooped and losing credit for an arrest, to an apprehensiveness that the other agency might leak the information, to not wanting to work with another agency felt to be incompetent, to just not wanting to expose your own agency’s incompetence. But there is one thing for certain, if agencies continue building these walls higher, it will without a doubt contribute to the success of future terrorist attacks.
The failure of any one, or any combination of these security elements could be the weakest link that breaks and leads to a catastrophic failure in the security aviation component as a whole. Yet today we see an abundance of failures in each and every one of these security elements, which is why I believe these elements are the most important issues that should be addressed when discussing aviation security.
You can be sure that terrorist networks are probing these failures every day, compiling notes and strategies, and the next terrorist attack will most certainly take advantage of these weak links. It’s not a matter of if the attacks are going to occur — it’s a matter of when.
Be sure to check out the rest of the Symposium on FrontPageMag.com.