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The Congressional Role in Airport Security

America is breathing a sigh of relief after coming through the July 4th weekend without the predicted terrorist calamity. Not all of us celebrated our nation’s birthday in peace, however -- around the globe, our troops continue to risk their lives in various venues in an unconventional war against terrorism, and here at home, ordinary citizens were murdered by yet another Arab terrorist, this time in the Los Angeles Airport.

I realize that many would disagree with my characterization of Hesham Mohammed Hadayet as a terrorist, apparently because he did not leave a trail back to a known terrorist group here or abroad. Generally speaking, terrorism is defined as a violent act against a national target for a political purpose. When an Egyptian national arms himself with two automatic handguns, extra ammunition, and a hunting knife, and singles out civilians for murder at the El Al ticket counter in the Los Angeles Airport, I don’t need more information to conclude that he is not a Welcome Wagon representative at the airport just having a bad day.

I think we have seen enough terrorist acts against both Israel and the United States to know a terrorist when we see one, without first running for a dictionary to define the term. The fact that Hadayet sent his family back to Egypt last week, had no identification on him, listed his birthday on his driver’s licenses (he had two), as July 4th, was incensed over a neighbor's display of the American and Marine Corps. flags after September 11th -- along with his possible meeting with an Osama bin Laden aide here in the United States -- further raises the question of why we are so concerned about identifying his actions for what they were: terrorism.

The term “suicide by cop,” used in situations where an assailant literally forces the police to kill him in order to end a rampage, comes to mind here. In this case, I believe it is safe to assume that Hadayet expected that he would be dispatched from this world by either airport police or El Al security for an act that is really indistinguishable from the new kind of homicide killings now being attempted in Israel. With bomb material becoming more difficult to get, Palestinian terrorists are now attempting to cross into Israel wearing stolen police or military uniforms ,and carrying handguns and extra ammunition to murder West Bank settlers. Both here and there, there is no shortage of available guns and ammunition.

In response to the July 4th carnage in the Los Angeles Airport, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has sent its usual cryptic signals concerning new security initiatives. First reports, later contradicted by the TSA, indicated that armed security personnel would be dispatched to patrol the ticket counter areas and to provide the same kind of protection now offered by El Al security for its customers. The usual who, what, when, where, and how questions remain unanswered, and are likely to continue to go unanswered until this storm blows over (to be replaced by another). In the meantime, the media will entertain the public with opinions from experts (like me) on where the security perimeter should be extended to at our airports, how much will it cost, and will the public tolerate further inconvenience. With the next crisis, these questions will be left unanswered, as the TSA move on to new issues.

When will the members of Congress who promised us first-rate security last November take the required action to keep their promise? The Aviation and Transportation Security Act was passed to bring new leadership, new strategies, and, above all, professionalism to the job of securing our airports. As we approach the first anniversary of 9/11, no part of that promise has been fulfilled by the TSA. It is the job of our Congress to see to it that their will, as expressed in the law, is observed, or to explain to the public who is responsible for the failures.

The Promise
The debate preceding the passage of the new law was focused on the issue of how best to replace some 28 thousand poorly-performing airport security screeners hired by the airlines to work at a little above minimum wage. After some heated arguments over whether the corps of new professional screening personnel should remain under private sector employment under government supervision, or whether to establish a federal bureaucracy to employ a corps of new workers to provide for the security needs of air travelers, a compromise was reached which brought us the latter.

On November 19th, just days before the Thanksgiving holiday, the new law was signed by President Bush. The law created a Transportation Security Administration with authority to hire and train new federal workers to take over the screening of passengers, baggage, and cargo at 429 commercial airports. Recognizing the need for flexibility in hiring and managing this new workforce, and in further recognition of the views of those, including President Bush, who believed that these workers should remain private-sector employees, the law established pilot programs for screeners. These pilot programs requires that, at five airports across the nation in each of the five risk categories, the workers remain private sector employees conforming to all employment eligibility and pay standards of the TSA’s federal workers. The point of this program was to have in place a group of workers against whom the performance of the federal workers could be measured. This mandate remains ignored.

Almost eight months after the signing of the new law, and some five months after the TSA took over direct control of airport security, 32 of the largest airports in the country were tested by the TSA for the ability of screeners to detect weapons and explosives. Approximately 25 percent of fake guns and bombs passed through. At Los Angeles International Airport, the site of the most recent airport carnage, a 41 percent failure rate was recorded. On the following day, in response to complaints from air carriers that security in our airports was little more than harassment of passengers (resulting in the loss of business travelers who are essential to the airlines), the TSA ordered federal security directors to tone down the level of security which had caused 126 airport evacuations since September 11th, together with other actions that have annoyed and inconvenienced the public unnecessarily. Is a hat-pin really a deadly weapon capable of taking down an airliner? The TSA seems to think so.

Reaching a sensible equilibrium between the needs of airlines for a viable security program that doesn’t drive air travelers away, and a coherent national security strategy that protects the needs of the traveling public for security without driving air carriers into bankruptcy, has proven to be an unachievable goal for the TSA. The nation still lacks a national strategy for airport security that is based upon proactive security measures resulting from a total risk analysis. Instead, we have a series of reactive measures promulgated without much forethought by administrators who are accustomed to reacting to crises rather than implementing plans to prevent them. They either overreact, or eliminate procedures without a view toward the end result. Breaking the one-inch nail file off of a pocket nail clipper to comply with the no pointed objects rule only results in casting the agency in the role of a nuisance in the eyes of the public.

A month ago, at the height of the suicide bombings plaguing Israel, and in anticipation of such acts occurring at our airports in the long queues forming before entering at security zones and ticket counters, security experts engaged in a national dialogue on how to build airport perimeters that could filter out some of the congestion. These discussions strained to get the profiling message across without appearing insensitive. Unsure of how to implement a security program that begins at the front door, if not upon entry to the airport, without just moving the security station there and consigning the passengers to the roadway, the TSA deflected the issue of profiling and focused on the recruiting of screeners instead. This program is quietly being conducted through a chain of endless sub-contracts in which the contractors so far have been the only real beneficiaries.

A result of the lack of proactive steps was seen this past weekend, when the TSA hastily reacted to the El Al attack with mixed signals about how it will secure ticket counters from terrorist acts. The nation is now left to focus on the question of where the security perimeter at an airport should be, as though terrorists will follow some rules laid down by the TSA about where they can strike next. A proactive program anticipates the answers before the questions are asked. Do we protect parking garages before or after they are targeted by terrorists?

The Reality
There are approximately 1,200 federal workers employed at screening stations at our airports. We will need an estimated 57,000 to fulfill the promise laid out in the new law. The number of employed sky marshals hailed as the answer to the kind of hijacking we saw on September 11th is undisclosed, but best estimates put the figure at between 1,500 and 3,000 to cover the approximately 35,000 daily flights.

The government has given up on its promise to provide the necessary 2200 CTX bomb detection machines, and estimates approximately 1,100 will be installed by year's end. To meet the requirement that every piece of checked baggage be checked for explosives by the end of the year, less intrusive (and perhaps more reliable) machines that “sniff” for the presence of explosives will be employed; supported by canines and physical searches of checked bags. Fully reinforced and bulletproof cockpit doors are at least two years away. The installation of closed-circuit television for airliner cabins is not yet on the horizon. The arming of pilots remains a hotly debated issue with a pilot project (no pun intended) pending before Congress. The completion of fingerprint background checks for all industry workers remains open. A uniform system for the physical screening of workers entering sterile areas is not yet in place, leaving the ramp side of our airports a gaping hole through which terrorists are free to enter.

After awarding over $100 million to Lockheed Martin for the hiring and training of airport screeners, progress remains at a snail's pace in finding potential workers who can pass even initial qualifying exams. Similar problems seem to plague efforts to recruit trainers for the program, who are being recruited from a variety of sources with very different requirements for qualifying.

With a price tag of $500 million for Boeing to figure out how to correct the high false positive rates of the CTX machines, and then how to get them installed in airports, the TSA is investing 25 percent of its first year budget on a program whose results are being deeply questioned by scientists as well as members of Congress.

The pilot project mandate to measure the quality of the new federal work force against a team of private sector workers has been eviscerated. Rather than accept the proposal of the New York Port Authority to place retired law enforcement officers at Kennedy Airport in New York as a pilot program, Department of Transportation (DOT) officials, after meeting with the mayor of San Francisco, agreed to allow San Francisco International Airport to have the pilot project for the high risk Category X airports.

Their plan is to keep the same workers now employed in their jobs under the same federal supervision they have had since February. Surely, the TSA must be aware that 700 of those workers are not U.S. citizens, and do not qualify as passenger screeners under the law. Indeed, that is the pilot program awarded to all five pilot project airports, thus ensuring that the federal worker program will be measuring itself against the mirror image of itself. It is anticipated that the TSA will be hiring substantial numbers of existing private sector workers for public sector jobs after having determined that one year’s employment as an airport screener meets the equivalency requirement in the law for a high school diploma.

The Role for Congress
For more than 15 years, Congress has recommended the need for security changes at the nation’s airports. Investigations conducted by the President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism investigating the causes of the Pan Am 103 disaster in 1989, the Gore Commission Report in 1997 in response to the TWA 800 explosion, and the Hart-Rudman Commission Report last year, stand out among dozens of reports by the FAA Inspectors General, the General Accounting Office, the CIA, FBI, NSA, and private sector, all indicating a need for the tightening of airport security as long as a decade before September 11th. In no uncertain terms, the Congress and President promised the American people that the deplorable low level state of readiness on the part of those responsible for airport security would be remedied by the new law through the implementation of its mandates.

Instead, airlines and airport authorities are bridling under cumbersome and unproductive rules that simply serve to harass the traveling public without providing even an appearance of improvement. Finding the same minimum wage workers still at screening stations in all but one of the nation’s airports has not instilled confidence in a system which continues to identify the least likely amongst us as a potential terrorist, but allows a shoe bomber to board an aircraft on the anniversary of the Pan Am 103 tragedy.

The American people need the help of their elected representatives in uncovering why, almost one year after the greatest single disaster to be suffered by our nation in our 226-year history, our airports are no more secure today than they were on 9/11. Where are the promised professionals ready to man our screening stations, armed and ready in our airliners, and patrolling our airport concourses? Where is the 21st-century technology improvements promised to secure us in flight? Where is the equipment to search checked baggage and cargo? When can we be assured that all who have access to sterile areas of airports, aircraft, baggage, and cargo have undergone the mandated background checks and are being screened and supervised each day as they report for work? When will we get an accounting of the $2 billion already spent, and the $4 billion yet to be spent? When will the master security plan for our aviation system be developed so that new strategies for reacting to each new crisis need not be developed overnight?

As the initial shock over the events of 9/11 yields to a rational inquiry about how we as a nation have responded to this insult against our liberty, will we be as proud of the work being performed by our elected and appointed federal officials as we are of those local government workers who risked and, in too many instances, paid with their lives to protect us? I seriously doubt that we will ever again see such genuine heroism as we saw on 9/11 and the days immediately following. Because we have witnessed such an unusual example of courage by so many men and women, we have the motivation to remain committed to the cause of protecting our nation from future tragedies of this type. That commitment must be shared in the halls of Congress as well.

If the events of September 11th are proven to be, even in part, the result of negligence in providing reasonable security against a foreseeable risk, those who were tasked with implementing the necessary procedures to keep terrorists and their weapons from our airports and airliners will also be held accountable. The new law recognizes that future threats to our society through our domestic aviation system are foreseeable. Should the next weapon to pass through airport security not be a fake supplied as a test by an FAA “Red Team” member, it will be clear where the responsibility for preventing such an occurrence lies.

Posted on Tuesday, July 9, 2002 at 05:15PM by Registered CommenterCharles Slepian in | Comments Off

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