Following the spending on programs purportedly designed to make our commercial aviation system secure, one is startled by two facts:
- The staggering amount of money that has been spent to rebuild the nation’s aviation security program after 9/11; and,
- How the enormous expenditures made in the attempt to hire effective federal workers to replace existing ineffective private sector workers, and to install new electronic equipment to protect the system from on-board weapons and explosives has failed to accomplish either.
It was saddening if not surprising to read in the Washington Post on May 22nd, that the major purposes for establishing the Transportation Security Administration: effective screening equipment and skilled screeners to use it have not yet been achieved. But then we have known that ever since the GAO and various Inspectors General started reporting on the progress and effectiveness of the TSA in implementing the goals of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act. All of the news is not bad however, it was refreshing to read that the former Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security, Clark Kent Ervin, repeatedly warned the agency’s Secretary, Tom Ridge that its goals were not being met; and in the face of internal criticism for doing that for which he was being paid, Ervin continued to warn the Congress and the American people of the seriousness of the problem.
It might be argued that in their haste to establish a line of defensive actions against terrorism at home, the DHS and TSA reached out to the nation’s biggest and most expensive contractors with blank checks in hand, offering to have them put in place the best security that money could buy immediately if not sooner. It could also be argued I suppose, that their errors in putting limitless faith in companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Unisys and General Dynamics were understandable in the face of danger so potentially lethal that the very future of an America as we know it was at stake, and only America’s most experienced and resourceful corporate giants could do the job of protecting us. But the future of America is not a football game in which a "hail Mary" pass is allowable, and our elected leaders are supposed to lead, particularly in times of peril and with more than promises, slogans and calls to rally around the flag. After almost four years of constant and repeated warnings from men and women who have served this country in roles that made them truly expert on questions of security for our aviation system and the other homeland security issues, their counsel was discounted in favor of the wishful thinking that with enough money we could buy something to solve our problems even without testing it first.
Attributing bad decisions possibly motivated by considerations that I will not speculate on, to meeting unrealistic congressionally imposed deadlines to hire, install and implement voodoo security for the nation’s airports lacks credibility given the magnitude of the danger we faced and continue to face from terrorism. From the outset of the project to locate, recruit, test, investigate, hire, train, outfit and assign the originally planned upon force of some fifty thousand screeners for our 429 commercial airports, the fledgling TSA awarded contracts without giving much thought to exactly whom they wanted to hire, how to recruit them, what it would take to train them, and what existing organizations, including the FAA academy for screeners, might be best to oversee the responsibility. When reports came back from some cities of insufficient interest in the screening jobs; of trainers sitting idle with nobody to train; and of some trainers working overtime at premium pay at other locations, nobody in authority wanted to hear it. The entire inflated process was failing to provide men and women with the skills and training necessary to protect airliners from sophisticated terrorists while fully trained former law enforcement and military personnel willing to serve were not recruited.
We did not fair any better at installing equipment to screen either carry-on or checked baggage. Despite the years of repeated problems and disappointments over the failure of our behemoth, over priced and unwanted EDS equipment to find even make-believe explosives, TSA set out with a determination to jam equipment stored in warehouses long before 9/11 by airports that considered them more trouble than they were worth into airports that still didn’t want them. Sadly, the fact that neither Congress nor the White House offered any direction to an inexperienced TSA for dealing with theses problems demonstrates that there were more than enough blinders to go around.
While we struggle to explain why waste and abuse by government characterizes the failed attempt to secure the commercial aviation industry, we must not be too willing to blame those failures on a lack of time. This is not the first time America has been asked, on short notice, to quickly replace an inadequate and archaic national defense with effective new systems. Compared with the need to create an armed force capable of fighting a two front war, rebuild a naval armada, develop an effective intelligence community and establish a national defense industry, as was asked of our parents and grandparents more than sixty years ago, hiring and training fifty thousand competent workers and supplying them with equipment capable of identifying weapons and explosives in four years time doesn’t seem to be a harrowing task. When faced with a crisis the one commodity always in short supply is time. It was not a lack of time that caused waste and abuse; it was a lack of knowledge for some decision makers and a lack of dedication for others. The proof is that almost four years later the same decision makers make the same bad choices knowing that their choices are bad. The argument made by government officials today for purchasing equipment that doesn’t perform the task for which it was purchased is that it was all that was available. Such decisions are the equivalent of purchasing unpacked parachutes for airborne troops because no silk was available. Knowingly providing inadequate security is negligence for which lack of time should not be accepted as a defense.
Since at least 1988 when terrorists destroyed Pan Am 103 in flight over Scotland, we have known that terrorists could take down an airliner by placing explosives on board because they did so. Since at least the early 1960’s, we have known that armed hijackers could commandeer a commercial aircraft because they did so with impunity, sometimes targeting multiple airplanes in a single day. And while we continued to fail to provide reasonable security against such acts, we never suggested that our failure was due to insufficient time. Then as now, it was a lack of will by those in charge to change the status quo that kept business functioning as usual despite the recognized foreseeable risks.
The sky marshals that were rushed into service in the 60’s and 70’s all but disappeared as the twenty-first century rolled around despite awareness of growing threats against aviation. The EDS equipment ushered in with great fanfare in the 1990’s was allowed to sit unused in terminals and in storage facilities as though airliner bombings had never been heard of with nothing of substance being accomplished to improve the performance and design of the equipment. The airlines and airports required by federal mandate to provide trained manpower to screen passengers, baggage and cargo looked upon that responsibility as a low priority, and the performance of those they selected was proof of it.
No amount of terrorism directed at America at home or abroad or the passage of any amount of time motivated government to take on the job of defending commercial aviation in earnest prior to 9/11. Unless we start now making security decisions based upon sound security principles established by professionals who reasonably understand the concept of reasonably foreseeable risks and what can realistically be done about them, the security decisions we make will continue to be inadequate and susceptible to abuse. There will never be enough time to put in place a successful aviation security program without skilled, trained and experienced leaders at the helm of it. With the right management, the job of effectively responding to the security needs of commercial aviation can begin to experience real progress in less time than we imagine.
At a time when we are sending our best and brightest in harms way around the world, to fight against banditry, genocide, rape, murder and religious bigotry, the characteristics of the often ill-defined enemy that continues to return them maimed or worse, we should not give a pass to civilians who when entrusted with the responsibility of defending the homeland whine about how they couldn’t perform because they were asked to do so under pressure. Some of us would like to believe that before we send our kids and their parents too into the heat of combat, those who send them would be willing to take the heat for their failures to fight the war at home under much more favorable circumstances. For those who stood by in government agencies, in the halls of Congress or in the White House while contractors tripped over themselves rushing in with high priced "solutions" that all knew didn’t work, please don’t further disgrace us with lame excuses. For contractors who took their piece off the top and then passed on the responsibilities they agreed to accept to sub-contractors often created overnight, remember: "It ain’t over until the fat lady sings."
The Washington Post has done a service to the nation by pointing out the abysmal failures of our homeland security program in general and aviation security in particular. They are also to be commended for spotlighting the important role played by the nation’s inspectors general in our federal agencies. I now look forward to the second of their two articles on this topic. I would like to believe that time constraints were indeed the reason for the failure to give the nation the level of security that we have paid for because lack of character in things political we have sadly come to understand; but I suspect the explanation requires more digging.