Safeguarding the Skies


Sep 30, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on September 30, 2001.

We may never know exactly how the hijackers seized control of four airliners on Sept. 11. The little evidence we have suggests they did it with small knives, cardboard cutters, and claims to have a bomb. They may or may not have worn red bandanas -- a psychological ploy.

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 worked!

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 demonstrated.

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 cutting corners.

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 and unsalable.

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.

Brian Michael Jenkins, an authority on terrorism, served as a member of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security and is a co-author of "Aviation Terrorism and Security." He is the senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation and a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute.

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