The last line of defense

The 9/11 commission report and aviation security experts paint a damning picture of how America's airline security failed -- and is still failing.

Published August 3, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

So far, media coverage of the 9/11 commission report has been dominated by story lines out of John le Carré novels. We've learned that the CIA failed to penetrate al-Qaida in the Middle East and capture the deadly hijackers, how the FBI gave short shrift to an internal memo warning that suspected terrorists were taking flight lessons in the United States, and how President Bush let slide a daily briefing that an emboldened bin Laden planned to attack American shores.

The focus on the wrenching series of failures among intelligence groups is important and justified. But all of the international intrigue, not to mention partisan sniping over what president or government agency was at fault, has deflected attention from the one culprit that gets a universal thrashing in the 9/11 report: the Federal Aviation Administration.

Still more troubling, the 9/11 report portrays the successor to the beleaguered FAA, the Transportation Security Administration, as infected with a host of similar problems -- a charge amplified by a host of former FAA security analysts and aviation security experts.

"Look at security measures before 9/11 and look at them after 9/11," says Michael Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consultant firm based in Colorado. "The flaws are still there."

The FAA -- the guardian of American skies and airports, with a special writ to protect travelers from criminal acts, including terrorism -- should have been the last line of defense. Instead, 19 terrorists slipped through its porous shield.

Here are just a few ways the 9/11 report gives the FAA an unequivocal thumbs-down:

  • Each layer of the FAA "relevant to hijackings -- intelligence, passenger prescreening, checkpoint screening, and onboard security -- was seriously flawed."
  • Jane Garvey, who guided the FAA from 1997 to 2002, did not review daily intelligence. As a result, she was "unaware of a great amount of hijacking threat information from her own intelligence unit."
  • Although government watchlists contained the names of tens of thousands of known terrorists, the FAA's own "no-fly" list contained names of just 12 terrorist suspects (including mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed).
  • In a rare moment of hyperbole, the report calls the discrepancy between the extensive terrorist roster and the meager FAA list, the one that airline clerks perused, an "astonishing mismatch."

    Indeed, reading how the hijackers slipped through cracks in security on Sept. 11 is astonishing. Four of the five hijackers on American Flight 11, the first jet to hit the World Trade Center, were flagged as suspect by airline clerks at check-in counters; their luggage was examined, no explosives were found, and they were sent on their way. Two of the hijackers on American Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, set off the security gate alarm -- but the screeners didn't bother to resolve what caused the buzz. The hijackers were hand-wanded, cleared and allowed to march onto the planes.

    And that's just the airports. Revelations abound about what happened in the sky, beginning with the first chapter, "We have some planes," a reference to the first thing an FAA controller overheard a hijacker say on Flight 11. Thirty minutes passed before the controller figured out the significance of that statement. Things could have gone very differently had officials realized immediately that more than one plane was in the hands of terrorists.

    Then there's this exchange. When the Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Virginia, which oversees the entire airspace, discovered that United Flight 93 -- which crashed in Pennsylvania -- was hijacked, it contacted FAA headquarters. A command center controller then wondered aloud whether they should ask the military to launch ("scramble") jets for assistance.

    Command Center: Uh, do we want to think, uh, about scrambling aircraft?

    FAA Headquarters: Oh, God, I don't know.

    Command Center: Uh, that's a decision somebody's gonna have to make probably in the next ten minutes.

    FAA Headquarters: Uh, ya know everybody just left the room.

    To most readers, the 9/11 report's indictment of the FAA may seem thorough and impressive. But to aviation security experts, both in government and in the private sector, the report doesn't get to the core of the FAA's problems. They argue that the report pulls its punches on the crucial point: that airline security was sacrificed to the bottom line and that old standby, keeping the customers satisfied.

    To its credit, the 9/11 report does assert that the FAA and its self-interested partner, the airline industry, exerted "great pressures" on the Department of Transportation (FAA's boss) to "control security costs" and "concentrate on its primary mission of moving passengers and aircraft." But don't be misled by the government-speak, says Boyd, who previously worked for American Airlines and Braniff International. "The FAA and airlines didn't care if security worked or didn't work. All they care about is no lines for passengers. And no flight delays."

    Steve Elson was an FAA special agent for security from 1992 to 1999. He worked for the administration's covert "Red Team," which analyzed airport security by, among other things, placing suspicious objects in luggage and carting them through check-in gates -- nine times out 10 without detection. A former Navy SEAL and Drug Enforcement Administration rep in South America, Elson is not a timid man.

    "I'd give the commission a 'D' for investigating the FAA," he declares. To Elson, the FAA was the very embodiment of a stagnant, insular bureaucracy. Due to its cozy relationship with the airline industry -- which is now in debt to the U.S. government for billions of tax dollars spent to bail it out  it perpetually suppressed critical reports.

    "The commissioners knew a lot more than they included in the 9/11 report," he says. "They sold out."

    Elson sent five of the commissioners his own "White Paper." In 24 single-spaced pages, Elson details decades of what he sees as the FAA's ineptness. He quotes internal FAA memos, government reports, his own conversations with countless Congress members, former colleagues, and his own Red Team experiences in breaching airport security.

    Elson's paper is intemperate in tone, a sustained rant. Yet it's nevertheless a damning portrait of a government agency riddled with arrogance, inefficiency and distrust of its own employees.

    "The FAA always talked about maintaining 'layers of security,'" Elson says. "But it was layers of bullshit and facade. It was chary of doing anything that would cost the airlines money. We in the field knew it but couldn't ever get anything done about it at headquarters."

    Since Elson quit the FAA -- "I was convinced they were going to kill people and didn't want to be part of it" -- he's become a professional pain in the ass, seldom passing up a chance to blame the FAA's incompetence for the 9/11 attacks. And perhaps his outrage sounds moot now, as it's not going to bring 3,000 people back to life.

    But Elson's criticism is significant because he charges that the same problems now infect the agency that took over airport security from the FAA, after Sept. 11, the Transportation Security Administration or TSA.

    TSA's annual budget is a staggering $5.3 billion. But in the past two years, the media has gone hog wild broadcasting how airport security is no better than it was before Sept. 11. Throughout 2003, Elson, usually with TV news cameras in tow, waltzed through security gates of the nation's major airports with objects (blow dryers and oranges) that resemble guns and explosives -- by hiding them beneath lead-shield film bags -- 135 times. In each instance, despite seeing a black blob on x-ray monitors, screeners didn't bother to look beneath the film bags for anything else.

    But it's not just Elson and other independent critics who are firing serious barbs at TSA; it's government officials themselves.

    Currently, five U.S. airports are testing whether airport screeners, hired by private companies, perform more effectively than TSA federal screeners. In April, Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin of the Department of Homeland Security (TSA's boss), testified before Congress that both groups performed about the same, "which is to say, equally poorly."

    The TSA, based on its own commissioned study, concurred, saying "there is no evidence that any of the five privately screened airports performed below the average level of federalized airports." TSA chief Rear Adm. David M. Stone, a George W. Bush appointee, stated "that all screeners -- federal and private -- meet the same demanding hiring requirements, pass the same rigorous training regimen, and follow the same standard operating procedures."

    But Boyd argues that it doesn't matter which group gets better marks, for screeners, while often the central focus of security, are merely one link in a chain that has countless other weak spots. Airports and commercial jets are vulnerable in many other ways. Terrorists could easily load weapons or bombs onto planes, Boyd says, with a little help from a wide range of people -- caterers, mechanics, baggage handlers; anyone who has access to jets before they take off.

    Boyd goes so far as to say that could be just the kind of help the hijackers had on Sept. 11. Perhaps the screeners really did find no weapons on the hijackers, he says. "I firmly believe there were things ferreted away on those airplanes. I firmly believe there were guns involved. I had one mechanic call me two weeks after 9/11 and say a 767 just pulled into the maintenance overhaul base and they found a couple of box cutters taped under certain seats."

    Tom Burnett, a passenger on Flight 93, did tell his wife, Deena, that one of the hijackers had a gun. But the 9/11 report states that no trace of a gun was found at the crash site; it adds that "if the hijackers had possessed a gun, they would have used it in the flight's last minutes as the passengers fought back."

    That doesn't deter Boyd. "What I'm saying is there was a larger conspiracy. They had to have had help by people on the other side of security. They had to have had help by people working at that airport. Mohamed Atta, after planning all this, wasn't going to risk getting caught by some stupid screener, saying, 'Oh, you have a box cutter?' After spending all this money, scoping out Boston Logan Airport for months, would you risk this by putting a box cutter in your bag or pocket? They had to know all this."

    Boyd's assertion that the hijackers thoroughly researched the airports and the type of jets they would commandeer is, in fact, supported by the 9/11 report.

    Otherwise, though, when it comes to co-conspirators at work in the airports, the commission report doesn't go there. Elson too says he hasn't seen any evidence of Boyd's conspiracy. But that's not the point. What is, Elson says, is that "you and I could get together, sit down and make a plan tomorrow to get on airfields. It's a piece of cake. We could get on planes with virtually 100 percent of success, plant a bomb, get off, and then blow the planes up. And the chances of getting caught are close to zero percent. That should make you feel good, huh?"

    TSA spokesperson Amy Von Walter responds that screeners are just one part of airport and airline security. "That's why we have a layered security system," she says. "We now have federally trained, federally hired screeners. We've got thousands of federal air marshals, reinforced cockpit doors, and federal flight deck officers, or armed pilots."

    Von Walter stresses that installing secure gates and fences around airport perimeters, and making sure that all areas of the airport are guarded, is a top priority for TSA officials. She points to a recent TSA plan that outlines how airport security firms and local law enforcement, including the police and FBI -- "who have the day-to-day responsibility of enforcing the perimeter" -- should protect all vulnerable areas, from hangars to restaurants.

    In every way, Von Walter says, air travelers today are safer than they were prior to Sept. 11. "Absolutely," she says. "No question about it."

    But in fact there is a question about it. The 9/11 commission itself declares that the TSA has no "forward-looking strategic plan" in place to correct past problems and "major vulnerabilities still exist in cargo and general aviation security."

    Other federal officials go further. In a General Accounting Office report this June, the government penny-pinchers slighted TSA's recent airport perimeter plan, calling the agency's security efforts "fragmented rather than cohesive," and hardly enough to justify the program's cost.

    Actually, look a little deeper into the bowels of government reports, and you find that our representatives on Capitol Hill are not happy at all with how things are going at TSA. In 2002, a House Appropriations Committee averred that TSA is "seemingly unable to make crisp decisions ... unable to work cooperatively with the nation's airports; and unable to take advantage of the multitude of security-improving and labor-saving technologies available."

    The next year, a Senate Appropriations Committee chimed in that TSA was "characterized by arrogance and disregard of the public's views. This is particularly troubling given the fact that the agency's core mission is to reassure the public as to the safety of the nation's transportation system."

    For Elson, the TSA is quite simply a train wreck. "The fact is, TSA has proven itself to be a reckless, profligate, self-serving organization that can't solve the most basic, rudimentary, fundamental elements of screening."

    Von Walter responds that TSA has been its own harsh critic. "As we continue to develop as an agency," she says, "we continue to assess, evaluate and make adjustments."

    One wants to believe it. But inside the TSA itself is one of the world's foremost aviation security experts, and he begs to differ. In fact, his voice is probably the most sober and frightening one you will hear regarding the current safety of our skies.

    His name is Bogdan Dzakovic and his résumé is awfully impressive. He was an officer in the Coast Guard, a criminal investigator with the Navy, a U.S. air marshal and a leader of the FAA's covert Red Team.

    Dzakovic is as earnest as Elson is brash. Yet he has been every bit as fearless as Elson, first within the FAA, and then the TSA, in pinpointing failures in security and broadcasting them to his managers and Congress members. He paid the price for his outspokenness: Today, the 50-year-old Dzakovic is biding his time until retirement as an inconsequential security inspector in TSA. He is a man who fought the law and the law won.

    But fight he has. Before the 9/11 commission, he testified that his Red Team breached airport security 90 percent of the time -- prior to Sept. 11 --- but that FAA managers suppressed his findings and in some cases prevented his team from retesting airports that were particularly bad offenders. "The more serious the problems in aviation security we identified, the more FAA tied our hands behind our backs and restricted our activities," Dzakovic testified.

    TSA was designed to be more open to criticism. Has it been? "TSA is worse than FAA," Dzakovic says flatly. "Nobody bothered to learn from the shortcomings leading up to Sept. 11. TSA is not only making the same mistakes but they've taken things to a new depth of ineptness. And they're spending 20 or 30 times more money doing it."

    Dzakovic's own detailed report of security failings at the FAA, and his subsequent claim that his work was being covered up, earned him official whistleblower status by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, which essentially means, yes, he was telling the truth, and yes, findings from the elite Red Team were "grossly mismanaged."

    Like many FAA employees, Dzakovic was transferred to the TSA, where despite his whistleblower status he was given a lackey gig in TSA's airport inspection division. After a year, a TSA manager asked him to prepare a "lessons learned" report about his manifold experiences in the FAA. And he did. "I wasn't just spouting off my theories either," he said. "I was saying here is the evidence why this will work and why you shouldn't do this." Ten days later, Dzakovic was demoted even further by being assigned to TSA's general aviation area, where he was given computer fix-it jobs that "any kid in high school could do on a work studies program."

    Dzakovic himself doesn't give the 9/11 commission report high marks. It's redolent of the political cronyism and craven policies that marred FAA and now TSA, he says. He offered the commission his 500-page whistleblower report, which proved that "FAA security operated in a manner that was a gross threat to public safety," and yet, he says, the commission turned him down.

    "The more I read the 9/11 report, the angrier I get," Dzakovic says. "I keep reading how the intelligence agencies didn't have any imagination. But they had too much imagination. They were so disconnected from the real world that they were in la-la land. Now they say the answer is having the agencies talk better to one another. But having one ineptly run agency talk to another ineptly run agency doesn't exactly fix the problem."

    What should have been corrected, Dzakovic continues, "is the one thing that should have happened in every agency -- the FBI, CIA, FAA. And that's the people on the bottom level of each of the respective agencies did their jobs. We recognized that the terrorist threat was increasing, we knew that security in aviation was a joke, we reported this to our chain of command, and they did nothing. If we would have been allowed to continue with what we were working on, and had the agencies made changes based on what we were doing, 9/11 wouldn't have happened."

    Dzakovic has some specific ideas for fixing the TSA, such as placing rigorously trained TSA employees throughout airports, rather than having a TSA manager strolling around with a clipboard, trying to organize myriad security guards and law enforcement agencies, the result being that no one is clear who's actually in charge. But it's pointless to offer recommendations, he says. So he stays in his office, doing his work.

    "One of my first assignments from the division manager was to go through an old FAA operations manual," he says. "Every time I saw the word 'FAA,' I was to scratch it out and put 'TSA.'"

    By Kevin Berger

    Kevin Berger is the former features editor at Salon.

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