This commentary appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on September 30, 2001.
Add to their weapons, real and imaginary, the element of surprise, the fact
that they were a team rather than a lone hijacker, possibly some swift initial
act of violence to intimidate would-be challengers, and everyone's knowledge
of previous hijackings, which suggested that compliance rather than foolish
individual resistance was the safest course of action.
How they persuaded or coerced pilots to surrender the controls we do not know.
In the one aircraft where passengers realized what the hijackers intended, they
were able to thwart their plans at the cost of their own lives.
If this scenario is more or less correct, then no FAA rules were broken. Had
the 19 not hijacked or threatened to hijack the aircraft, they broke no laws.
They could not be arrested for bringing on board items that passengers are permitted
to carry. If we measure performance strictly by compliance with rules, security
Of course, it did not. Procedures worked. Security failed terribly with catastrophic
consequences. The Sept. 11 attacks underline the difficult task of defending
against terrorism in general and the specific problem of aviation security.
Finger pointing now serves no purpose. In the name of cheap, convenient air
travel, Congress failed to require, industry failed to provide, government failed
to enforce, and the public failed to demand adequate security.
New rules to prevent a recurrence of what happened on Sept. 11 are necessary.
They will not suffice. Hastily enacted legislation, however well intentioned
it may be, will not suffice.
We operate in a new environment. Aviation security, as the White House Commission
on Aviation Safety and Security argued five years ago, but not strenuously enough,
had become an issue of national security. That sense of urgence was not shared
then; it was more business as usual. Now, however, it is clear that national
security is at risk and the events of Sept. 11 demand that we fundamentally
review the strategy, organization, financing, policies, procedures and performance
of how we secure commercial and private aviation in this country.
The recommendations made by the White House Commission in 1997 do not offer
a blueprint for what must be done today. Commissions are advisory bodies; they
have no power beyond the persuasiveness of their arguments. Members of the commission
were determinedly pragmatic. We saw no utility in making proposals that had
little chance of acceptance, even less of implementation. We tried to improve
security; we could not overhaul it.
The commission naturally focused on preventing the sabotage of airliners.
Initially, it had been feared that a terrorist bomb had brought down TWA 800,
which crashed in July 1996, killing all 244 persons on board. Evidence later
pointed to mechanical failure.
Nonetheless, in the previous 11 years terrorist bombs had brought down a number
of commercial jets killing nearly a thousand people including 271 who died at
Lockerbie -- America's worst terrorist incident. And in 1996, authorities in
the Philippines had luckily discovered a plot masterminded by Ramzi Yousef,
(wanted for his participation in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing) to bring
down 12 U.S. jetliners in the Pacific. A coordinated attack, breathtaking in
its ambition, had it come off would have resulted in thousands of fatalities.
It was a warning of the kind of terrorist thinking we face. Armed with knowledge
of the plot, the FAA implemented special security measures and nothing happened.
One of the frustrations in combatting terrorism is that successes are often
invisible while failures are obvious.
The possibility that hijackers might intend to do more than seize hostages
and change the destination of the plane was not unthinkable. There were a few
precedents, but absent a hijacking in the United States for years, no specific
countermeasures were proposed.
Security against terrorism is always reactive. The problem is that thinking
as a terrorist might, I can conjure up more diabolical scenarios than any security
system can protect against. The White House Commission mentioned three of these:
attacks on commercial airliners with hand-held, precision-guided surface-to-air
missiles -- it has happened a number of times overseas; cyber-attacks on vital
information systems like air traffic control, and the deliberate contamination
of an airliner with chemical or biological substances. But we offered no solutions.
The challenge is not formulating attack scenarios. It is trying to figure
out how best to allocate security resources in an environment of uncertainty.
Why not deal with all of them? To a certain extent that is necessary, but it
dilutes and may divert resources. And still more threat scenarios, all plausible
albeit remote, can be added, eventually swamping security efforts.
The Sept. 11 attacks demonstrate that compliance with rules does not equal
good security. Security that is based solely on compliance with specific FAA
rules ceases to be dynamic. It becomes predictable. An intelligent observer
can watch the procedures, discern the vulnerabilities and exploit them as terrorists
did on Sept. 11. If an army were to do exactly the same thing in every battle,
it would soon be defeated. Rule-based security filters out the dumb; it lies
wide open to the clever.
Aviation security has in the past relied upon a front-line defense. A proliferation
of hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s mandated extraordinary security
measures. Although sky marshals initially were deployed, a decision was made
that the best place to conduct security was on the ground before passengers
boarded the aircraft. In 1973, the United States implemented 100 percent passenger
screening -- controversial at the time -- obliging every passenger to pass through
a metal detector, put their carry-on luggage through an X-ray machine, and submit,
if requested, to a hand search.
At the same time, diplomatic efforts succeeded in persuading more and more
nations to prosecute or extradite all hijackers regardless of their cause. Hijackings
declined dramatically, but did not cease entirely. Individuals still found ways
to smuggle weapons on board, exploited less secure airports, used makeshift
weapons, or simply claimed to have explosives.
On the airplane, the safest course of action was to keep the hijacker calm
and get the airplane back on the ground where authorities could deal with the
problem. Compliance, not resistance, made sense and it did work to save lives.
We now need to develop a multilayered defense. The front line would comprise
the passenger screening, and luggage inspection now done at airports, but with
better performance. The deployment of explosives detection technology should
be accelerated. Additional passenger inspections can be carried out at the gate.
Security measures on the airplane can provide a second layer of defense. As
it stands now, the biggest single improvement in security on the plane is the
likelihood that any future hijacker will be beaten senseless by desperate passengers.
Measures may include air marshals, sealed cockpits, armored cockpit doors.
The fact that pilots want to be armed betrays the lack of confidence in the
current security structure by those who fly the planes. Should they be? It is
an option. Certainly, no future adversary should be allowed to think that they
might not be.
Technology offers a last line of defense. We can install technology to ensure
that only an authorized member of the crew is at the controls. Upon a duress
signal from the pilot or a significant deviation from the flight path, we can
remotely switch on audio and video monitoring of the cockpit to see the situation.
The technology also exists to disconnect whoever is in the cockpit and land
the plane by remote control, although the safety of that approach needs to be
Between the layers of security must be curtains of mystery -- unannounced
changes in security levels, routines, and procedures that reflect the evolving
threat and deprive the would-be adversary of certainty and confound his planning.
These should be implemented without the need for the negotiation of new rules
required under the current regime. One useful consequence of federalizing aviation
security is the ability to treat security operations as classified information,
thereby keeping it out of the hands of those who would use it as a road map.
A more professional security force is prerequisite to any significant improvement
in aviation security. The current screening force is haphazardly recruited,
unscreened, underpaid, inadequately trained and poorly motivated to do a very
difficult job. People think screening is easy. It isn't. There is nothing inherently
wrong with those who perform this difficult task, and in some places they do
an excellent job, but performance is patchy. The problem is systemic. Competitive
bidding for security contracts and high turnover rates among personnel encourage
One option is to create a professional national service encompassing screeners,
ramp guards and air marshals, thus providing opportunities to make aviation
security a career. Training can be conducted in a more creative way than mere
classroom instruction. Realistic testing can prevent boredom and complacency
and at the same time provide opportunities to offer instant cash rewards and
points for promotion. National competitions can be held -- a security Olympics.
Performance can be made a matter of personal pride and a means to personal advancement.
At one time in our history, we turned conscripts, and in some cases young men
given a choice between jail or enlistment, into good soldiers. We certainly
can turn volunteers into a dedicated security force.
It should not take long to create a well-trained professional security force
if we put our mind to it. People have referred to the Sept. 11 attacks as another
Pearl Harbor. Eleven months after Pearl Harbor, we successfully landed an army
of 100,000 men on the shores of North Africa. This is a less daunting task.
To do so will require a new organizational approach. We must consider every
option except the continuation of the current contract-to-the-lowest-bidder
system: A federal force has some advantages. A quasi-public aviation security
authority also is a possibility -- autonomous but under contract to the Department
of Transportation or Department of Defense in order to allow federal review,
but not inappropriate industry or political influence over its staff. It will
answer -- and it will answer -- directly to the American public. The era of
overt and covert industry influence has to end.
The costs will run to several billion dollars a year. Yet, with approximately
700 million airline passengers a year in the United States, a security tax of
three to four dollars per flight, an amount most passengers now would readily
pay, security would be self-funding.
This sum ought not to be part of the airlines' top line or an expense in calculating
their bottom line. And it ought not to be subject to the annual budget negotiations
in Congress. Put a tax on every airline ticket for security and direct the revenue
stream to a trust which is to be used exclusively for its declared purpose.
This idea surfaced in the Commission's discussions, but it was rejected as unwarranted
We must credibly re-establish air travel as being safe and secure. The vitality
of our economy depends on it. The common defense of our nation depends on it.
Our lives depend on it.
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