Can we afford to make airline travel safe?

Counter-terrorism expert Morris Busby on the costs of aviation

Published July 19, 1996 12:27PM (EDT)

Maybe the black box that Navy divers were looking for Friday will provide more clues about the explosion of TWA Flight 800. Pentagon officials today ruled out the Stinger missile theory -- primarily because the plane was simply "too high." Some other form of terrorism, however, was still very much a possibility, and the CIA's Counter-terrorism Center has reportedly begun an international search for possible leads.

Whatever the final explanation, the explosion raises new concerns about the security of U.S. airlines, which have been free from terrorist acts for several years. We talked with Morris D. Busby, Ambassador at large for counter-terrorism in the Bush administration and a former U.S. ambassador to Colombia who now runs his own security consulting firm.

Since your stint as ambassador for counter-terrorism, has the U.S. become more vulnerable to terrorist acts on our shores?

No. Our main defenses which we have always depended on for protection against domestic terrorism are still strong. Despite the fact the U.S. is one of the freest societies in the world, we have good internal security -- 17,000 local police forces, the FBI, all sorts of law enforcement agencies and security operations. They operate with the total acquiescence, even support of the American public.

Americans are targets of terrorism because of who we are, and that's been the case for a long time. But terrorists are not heroes here. Law enforcement agencies can always depend on the American public to help them, to report suspicious events. And that's a crucial defense.

Still, in the past few years, we've had the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahoma City bombing and now, possibly, a Lockerbie-style terrorist act.

The number of terrorist incidents worldwide and domestically is actually less now than it used to be. What has changed is the severity of these incidents. That somebody would actually try to bomb an airliner coming out of the United States as opposed to, say, Egypt -- that is a change. It has exposed the fact that even though we have this good security, we nonetheless are now susceptible. Less susceptible than other countries, yes. But can it happen here? Demonstrably, it can.

If it was a bomb that downed TWA Flight 800, must it have been a very big one?

Yes and no. In theory you would have to have a very large weapon to blow up a plane that size. On the other hand, that aircraft was fully loaded with fuel and if you placed a weapon correctly, it would not have to be that big.

In what area is our airline security most vulnerable?

I don't agree, and I have never agreed, that security should fundamentally be in the hands of the airlines, and that it should be paid for by the airlines. The cost of security is a cost off the bottom line of a CEO's balance sheet. That's not to say that the airlines don't do a good job -- most of them at least do what the FAA requires them to do. But there is a natural tendency for an airline CEO, like any businessman, to do what he needs to do to get himself certified and no more. And he's going to do it as cheaply as he can. And in a world that is as competitive commercially as the airline industry is, you get what you pay for. What you end up with, in my opinion, is probably less security than we need, and deserve.

So the government should pay?

I'm not a proponent of big government; in fact, I'm opposed to big government. On the other hand, there are some things that are the responsibility of the government, that only they can do. To carry it further, I would say it's time for the administration to have another presidential commission on aviation security, like the one we had in 1988.

That led to the Aviation Security Improvement Act, which set up a fund to develop better security procedures.

Yes, it amounted to about $6 per head, and has been going into the federal treasury since 1990. To my knowledge it has never been used. That's another thing for a presidential commission to look at.

Perhaps some of that money could be used on the more sophisticated baggage inspection system that only San Francisco and Atlanta appear to be using.

Yes, the CTX5000. It's a CAT scan technology-based system and it's the only one that has met FAA standards. But it has two terrible drawbacks: it's very, very heavy and it costs a lot of money -- three quarters of a million dollars a pop. So the FAA has been reluctant to mandate that system -- which it could do -- because it would cost literally billions of dollars to outfit all the airports and airlines with it.

Are there other noticeable problems with the bottom-line approach to airport security?

Do you fly much? What do you think of the X-ray screening and the training of the people who station them?

I'm not all that encouraged.

No, and I think this is another chink in the armor. The technology that we use to screen passenger bags, carry-on baggage and the passengers themselves is probably adequate to protect against someone carrying a .45 or a knife. Other possible weapons can be harder to detect. At the same time, the airlines hire people the cheapest they can get them. They are trained, probably adequately, to watch the screen, but not much more than that. They sit there screening thousands and thousands and thousands of bags a week. And the feedback that any of them get for trying to do a good job is negative. When was the last time you complimented somebody for stopping you and making you open your bag? So the tendency over time is to simply do the job, unless something really jumps out and bites you.

Some of that can be fixed, it seems to me, with better technology, better tools, better presentation. There are all kinds of things you can do, every single one of which costs money. So you're back to the basic issue of who pays.

Quote of the day

Now boarding bombers in Rows 1 through 18

"Had I been a suicide terrorist I could have proceeded from my arrival gate (from San Francisco) to the street, picked up a couple of pounds of C4 from an accomplice, stuffed it into one of my carry-on bags and blown TWA 800 out of the sky."

-- Joop Van Lingen, general manager of a communications security firm, on the lack of security at the TWA terminal before he boarded Flight 800 on June 13. (From "Airport Safety Never Perfect, Experts Assert," in Friday's San Francisco Chronicle.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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