- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Two recent incidents involving commercial airliners raise some disturbing questions about the security of commercial air passengers, and about the direction in which the government is heading in response.

In one incident, a note found aboard a commuter jet forced its diversion from Washington’s Reagan National Airport to Dulles International Airport. The other, a few days later, caused significant delays in flights from France to the U.S. because a woman passenger’s jacket contained some wires. The first incident was the result of an apparently deranged person writing an apparently threatening note; the second of a legal piece of clothing with wires imbedded to in it to keep the wearer warm.

While the government will not confirm whether U.S. fighter jets were scrambled to shadow either jet in these incidents, the frightening fact is that since September 11, 2001, fighter jets reportedly have been scrambled to shadow commercial aircraft some 1,600 times; just about twice a day on average. This is frightening because those jets are armed with air-to-air missiles fully capable of knocking out of the sky any commercial airliner in use today. In both of these incidents, the facts leading to the scares turned out not to be credible. Thankfully, this apparently has been the case in every other incident in which military jets have been scrambled. And thankfully, no mistakes have been made … thus far.

However, these latest incidents, and the frequency with which military planes apparently have been scrambled in response to the many incidents since September 11, should raise serious questions in the mind of the flying public about exactly how the government is meeting the challenges of September 11. If in fact our own government is willing to shoot down a commercial aircraft, with hundreds of innocent men, women and children on board if it appears to pose a serious risk to life or property, then should we not be demanding that all reasonable — and less-dire — steps to avoid such a result, be taken first? And should we not also demand the government take further steps to catch terrorists rather than ensnare innocent citizen-air travelers in a web of inconvenient and privacy-invasive nonsense? Regrettably, the government is doing neither.

While one could perhaps envisage a scenario in which shooting down a commercial passenger aircraft would be the lesser of two evils, would not shooting a single terrorist be clearly preferable? Would it not be better to arm airline pilots rather than scrambling F-16s to shoot down the entire aircraft? Yet, even though Congress has mandated the arming of airline pilots, the administration continues to drag its feet in carrying out this vital and reasonable measure to protect air passengers and crews.

Nearly 21/2 years after we became tragically aware of how vulnerable commercial aircraft were to hijacking, only a small fraction of airline pilots are allowed to carry handguns in the cockpit to provide the last, but best, chance of foiling a hijacker’s effort. Even those who finally receive the TSA seal of approval to be armed, are allowed to have a defensive handgun in the cockpit under such extensive restrictions that many pilots say they would not be able to use the weapon even if faced with the need to do so.

Apparently somebody in the government has decided it’s easier, or perhaps “safer,” to send up an armed F-16 to possibly shoot down a 747, than to arm its pilot.

In the government’s continuing effort to keep terrorists from boarding aircraft in the first place, the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) continues to move forward with plans to implement a new computerized passenger profiling system, known by its acronym, CAPPS II. Despite serious concerns over its constitutionality expressed by many privacy groups and the Congress, the administration apparently will be implementing the new system later this spring or early summer.

Even if one were willing to buy into the dubious argument — discounted by serious intelligence analysts — that profiling the millions of innocent citizens traveling by commercial air carrier each day will somehow identify terrorists, such a system is not necessary. What we need is a computer-assisted terrorist profiling system; not a law-abiding passenger profiling system.

The disturbing fact is, the government still does not have a functioning, comprehensive terrorist watch list database. The lack of a comprehensive and accessible database of known and suspected terrorists and associates thereof, was perhaps the single most critical shortcoming accounting for the success of the September 11, 2001, terrorists. The government’s failure to develop and implement such a system over the past 28 months should be the subject of serious public outcry, and lead to a serious congressional investigation.

Apparently, the federal government has determined it is easier, or perhaps simply preferable, to develop a database of law-abiding citizens, rather than a database of terrorists.

The bottom line is we, the traveling public, continue to be needlessly profiled, inconvenienced and endangered by government foot-dragging and bad bureaucratic decision-making. Doesn’t leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling as you “buckle your seatbelt and turn off your cell phone,” does it?

Bob Barr, a former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia, is a columnist for United Press International.

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