Memo to airports: Hire Big Brother

Rigorous preflight screening of air travelers is the best way to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Published November 27, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

The aviation security legislation signed Nov. 19 by the president is a sham. It ignores the most critical issue: positive identification of each passenger who makes a reservation.

We learned on Sept. 11 that the United States has no system to protect air travel, just fragments of a system: outdated hijacker profiles, lax security inspectors, hit-or-miss baggage checks, limited X-ray inspections, the random sky marshal. But turning each airport into a mini-Maginot Line is not the answer. We need to identify all passengers on every flight. Who they are. Where they live. The depth and breadth of their records provided by our information-intensive society.

The debate in Congress focused almost exclusively on physical security: airport inspections and undercover sky marshals. Because there are not enough marshals for every flight, the airport must become a final, formidable line of defense. Though the new law appears to strengthen airport security, it fails to make use of government and commercial databases that would allow a federal agency to identify everyone who makes a reservation.

This is not about ethnic profiling. Compiling a massive dossier on each passenger would waste time as well as resources. The objective of preflight screening is to pinpoint those passengers about whom we know little or nothing.

With screening information attached to each reservation, airport security officials could concentrate their resources on the relatively few passengers who cannot be adequately verified through public and private-sector databases. Individuals for whom little information exists should face greater scrutiny than those who are well established in their communities.

A picture I.D., such as a driver's license, is not enough. Most state motor vehicle departments require only two forms of identification from a new applicant. As a practical matter it takes only one "breeder document," such as a passport, to generate additional documents. With a false passport, a foreign resident in the United States can get a student or employee I.D., establish a bank account and obtain other documents based on the passport. With these documents, foreigners can handily obtain a state driver's license.

When passengers check in for a flight, airlines look only at the outward trappings of identity, such as a driver's license or passport. A true security system would search for corroborating data to determine the depth of information associated with those documents.

When someone presents a credit card to cover a purchase, an online system verifies the validity of the card and approves the charge if the amount does not exceed the cardholder's authorization level. Financial institutions routinely review credit and banking records when someone applies for a home or car loan. A federal agency charged with aviation security ought to have similar access to determine if the name, address and credit card number linked to a flight reservation are legitimately connected to the individual who made the reservation.

The end result of such preflight screening would be a score that weighs the quality and quantity of data related to each passenger. An individual with long-standing ties in this country -- employment, residence, tax payments -- will score high. Someone who has left few traces in government and commercial databases will score low.

Take the 19 hijackers. All had applied for, and received, Social Security numbers; yet an examination of Social Security records would have shown few with significant earnings. Similarly, some of the terrorists had frequent flier numbers but few or no mileage credits.

Had a competent federal agency been operating a preflight screening system, we could have penetrated the cover of the 19 terrorists. Their employment and income records would have been thin to nonexistent. The agency would have found some using box numbers at Mail Boxes Etc. instead of street addresses. An automated match against watch lists could conceivably have triggered an investigation and possible arrests. At a minimum, their low screening scores would have been appended to their flight reservation records and alerted airline and airport security staff to thoroughly inspect the men and their baggage.

At airports today, passenger check-in and security checkpoints operate independently or, more to the point, in ignorance of each other. The new law does not address this.

If we had an integrated system, the agency could physically track individuals from the moment they come into contact with the airline or a security checkpoint. The number on each passenger's ticket would link the flight reservation to the preflight screening score. Though the score would be invisible to the passenger, everyone connected to air travel security would have access to the information.

The checked luggage of someone with a low score would be X-rayed and opened, if necessary, to make certain it posed no danger to the flight. At security checkpoints, passengers would be directed to specific lines. Those with low scores would go to lines that specialize in detailed electronic and physical inspections of individuals and their carry-on baggage.

Having a federal agency track everyone through the security process would also make airport screening more efficient. Instead of the mob scene now playing at major airports, with everyone vying for the same lines, the tracking process could automatically assign passengers whose boarding times are fast approaching to shorter inspection lines.

All passengers and their luggage must be inspected, if only to prevent someone from hiding a bomb in the suitcase of an innocent passenger. But an intelligent security system cannot treat everyone the same way; it must focus on those most likely to pose a risk.

The terrorists had their flight reservations two weeks before Sept. 11. The airlines' antiquated hijacker profile -- one-way ticket, purchased in cash at the last minute -- proved useless. Some of the terrorists used online reservation systems and paid with credit cards. Inspectors at each airport missed the box cutters concealed in their carry-on bags. The terrorists all too easily worked their way through our fragmentary system.

The new law perpetuates that fragmentation.

By Peter J. Ognibene

Peter J. Ognibene, a former Air Force officer, is a Washington writer.

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