Are we safer than we were eight years ago?

We're still looking for pointy objects when we should be looking for bombs. Time for a leaner, meaner operation

Published September 11, 2009 10:17AM (EDT)

On the eve of the 8th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, travellers go through the passenger security screening facility at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, outside Washington, September 10, 2009.
On the eve of the 8th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, travellers go through the passenger security screening facility at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, outside Washington, September 10, 2009.

I'm old enough to remember Moammar Gadhafi being interviewed by Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes." It was the late 1970s. I was 13, maybe 14. Then and now, the thing about Gadhafi is that you want to like and respect him. If nothing else, his posing and preening add flash and charisma to the world stage. And how can you not appreciate a world leader so true to his Bedouin roots that he conducts state business in a tent?

Well, two good reasons might be Libya's human rights record and its sponsorship of terrorism. Gadhafi has, in recent years, openly forsaken such behavior, dismantling Libya's nuclear program and working to improve its ties with Europe and America. One presumes his reasons for doing so are not entirely altruistic -- so it goes in geopolitics -- but whatever his motives, there are those who will neither forgive nor forget.

In early December 1988, the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, Finland, received an anonymous tip claiming that a Pan American Airways flight from Frankfurt, Germany, to New York would be bombed in the coming weeks. Deciding not to publicize the threat, officials warned Pan Am and sent notice to embassies around Europe. All was quiet until Dec. 21, the winter solstice and just a few days before Christmas.

That morning, on the Mediterranean island of Malta, just south of Sicily, two men smuggle a brown Samsonite suitcase onto an Air Malta jet bound from the capital, Valletta, to Frankfurt. The men are later alleged to be Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah and Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi. Fhimah is the former head of security for Libyan Arab Airlines. Megrahi works as the airline's station manager at the Valletta airport. Prosecutors will argue the men are operatives acting on behalf of the JSO, the Libyan Intelligence Service. Inside the Samsonite, and wrapped in a wool sweater, is a Toshiba radio. Inside the radio, fitted with both a timer and a barometric trigger, is a Semtex-laden bomb.

Wearing forged tags, the deadly suitcase is transferred in Frankfurt to a Pan American 727 departing for London Heathrow, the first leg of Flight PA103. At Heathrow the bag is shuttled to another Pan Am craft, a much larger Boeing 747. The 747 is scheduled for an early evening departure to New York's Kennedy Airport, and the Samsonite is going with it.

The rest most people are familiar with. Pan Am 103 is carrying 259 people when it is blown to pieces about a half-hour out of London. The majority of the wreckage falls onto the town of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 11 more. Carried by the upper-level winds, pieces are spread over an 88-mile trail. The largest section, a flaming heap of wing and fuselage, drops onto the Sherwood Crescent area of Lockerbie, destroying 20 houses and plowing a crater 150 feet long and as deep as a three-story building. The concussion is so strong that Richter devices mark a 1.6 magnitude tremor.

Until you-know-what, eight years ago Friday, the bombing of Flight 103 represented the worst-ever terrorist attack against a civilian U.S. target.

Gadhafi's government would also be held responsible for the destruction of UTA Flight 772 nine months later. Most Americans don't remember this incident, but it has never been forgotten in France. (UTA was a globe-spanning carrier based in Paris that was eventually absorbed by Air France.) One hundred and seventy people from 17 countries, including seven Americans, were killed when an explosive device went off in the forward luggage hold of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 on a flight from Congo. The wreckage fell into the Tenere region of the Sahara, in northern Niger, one of the planet's most remote areas.

Gadhafi eventually agreed to blood money settlements for Libya's hand in both attacks. The UTA agreement doled out a million dollars to each of the families of the 170 victims. More than $2.7 billion was allotted to the Lockerbie next of kin. This after a French court convicted six Libyans in absentia for the UTA murders, including Gadhafi's brother-in-law. As for Lockerbie, one of the most intensive criminal investigations in history found Megrahi and Fhimah on trial at Camp Zeist in the Netherlands. Fhimah was acquitted. Megrahi was found guilty and sentenced to life.

Until two weeks ago, Megrahi, now terminally ill, was living out his sentence in a Scottish prison. But in a move that has startled the world, Scottish authorities struck a deal with the Libyan government, and he was allowed to go home, to be with his family in his final days.

Compassionate or crazy? Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a highly interesting Op-Ed by Ali Aujali, the Libyan ambassador to Washington. Say what you want of his credibility, but Aujali reminds us that many people, including several families of the Lockerbie victims, believe that Megrahi has been innocent all along. Bolstering this claim are people like Hans Koechler, a United Nations observer at Megrahi's 2001 trial, who called the verdict "a spectacular miscarriage of justice." In 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission said essentially the same thing. Questions about Megrahi's culpability are the likely driver behind his unexpected release, and his jubilant reception in Libya was not a hero's welcome for a terrorist, so much as the welcoming home of a fellow citizen believed to have been unjustly convicted. As Aujali points out, this perspective has been absent from the press and media's coverage.

However you see it, whether Megrahi should have been released is a curious dilemma, and one of constructive timing. Here on this eighth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, remembering the fate of Pan Am 103 is, or should be, a useful exercise. It serves to remind us that violent air crimes were taking place long before Mohammad Atta and his henchmen were even born. It should also provide a ringing reminder that our current approach to airport security is dangerously misguided.

As I noted a week ago, the primary threat to commercial planes is, was and shall remain explosive devices. The Sept. 11 skyjack scheme is today unworkable for a variety of reasons. Yet those who run airport security refuse to acknowledge this, wasting time and resources ransacking people's luggage for what are, in effect, harmless items. Has anybody at the Transportation Security Administration bothered to peruse the air crimes annals of the past 50 years? The agency, along with too many Americans in general, seems to exist in a world that did not begin until 2001, oblivious to the long record of terrorist sabotage against civilian airliners.

My ranting on this topic might be redundant, but remember there are hundreds of lives, and tens of billions of dollars, at stake. A bombing, or multiple bombings, would be devastating to the U.S. economy and possibly catastrophic for the airline business. In the past, airlines were able to pull through after incidents of sabotage. People recoiled in horror, but they didn't stop flying. Nowadays our mind-set is very different. We are, I'm afraid, more predisposed to panic and rash behavior. Am I the only one who eyes the news each morning with nervous dread? The fear of a bombing lurks in the back of my mind, ever present like a low hum.

And if and when one occurs, the outrage will be predictable. Why weren't we checking more thoroughly for explosives?

Last week, traveling as a passenger, I boarded a U.S.-bound flight at a foreign airport. I will leave the airport nameless; it really doesn't matter because it's the same situation at many, if not most, of them. The weather was cool and I was wearing a pullover jacket, quite bulky. To my surprise, I was not asked to remove this jacket when I passed through the metal detector. I could have walked through that checkpoint with six pounds of Semtex strapped to my chest, completely unnoticed. Once at the gate, on the other hand, I had to hoist my bags onto a table in order to let a gloved lackey paw through my laundry in an eagle-eyed search for toothpaste (which, for the record, I also could have sneaked through merely by slipping it into my pocket).

And that's not the worst of TSA's let-me-get-this-straight policies. How about the fact that although crew members are subject to the same rigmarole as passengers, other airport workers are not. Caterers, cleaners, mechanics, fuelers, et al., are hit only with occasional random searches.

Later, making my connecting domestic flight, I had a frustrating chat with two TSA guards at the checkpoint. My belt buckle kept causing the scanner to ring -- something that almost never happens -- prompting me to suggest that the machine needed to have its sensitivity adjusted. The guard seemed put off by this, almost angry. "As a pilot," he said, "I'd expect you'd want it to be as sensitive as possible."

I told him that I really couldn't care less whether passengers were carrying pointy objects onto my plane. "Shouldn't you be looking for bombs instead?" I asked.

He wasn't impressed. "Why?" he wanted to know.

"What do you mean, why?"

"Weren't no bombs that knocked down the World Trade Center," he replied. "It was those knife things..."

"Box cutters," affirmed his colleague, sitting to one side and staring languidly at her monitor. "That's what I'm looking for."

I tried explaining that the Sept. 11 scheme was no longer viable, and how, in any event, a deadly blade can easily be made undetectable, or can be fashioned from items found on any plane. "What happened in 2001 had nothing to do with box cutters," I said. "The hijackers weren't exploiting lousy security. They were exploiting our mind-set, and our understanding of hijackings at the time."

"I don't know anything about that," was the reply. I was told to "take it up with Uncle Sam," and issued an unfriendly command that I please move on.

This disturbing exchange made me wonder. It's true that the high-tech X-ray machines used to scan carry-ons are fairly good at picking up explosives. But not if the screeners don't care and aren't even looking for them. The technology is only as effective as the personnel using it.

If you ask me, every last dime currently being spent looking for pointy objects, triple-checking people's IDs, and confiscating harmless liquids needs to be redirected. Every piece of luggage needs to be scrutinized for explosives, and every passenger run through one of those explosives-sniffing "puffer" machines, now in all-too-sporadic deployment. It'd be expensive and technologically challenging, yes, but made more affordable by cutting out much of what's currently in place.

And we should put more emphasis on airports outside the United States. The likeliest point of entry for a bomb is not Omaha, Neb., or Tucson, Ariz. If I were running things, I'd reallocate at least 30 percent of resources to airports overseas. TSA does, very much, have influence over the way foreign stations handle security. The agency recently denied Delta Air Lines' attempts to begin service to Nairobi, Kenya, and Monrovia, Liberia, for example, over airport security concerns. It will not reveal what exactly these concerns are, which is fair enough, but we should hope against hope it had something to do with explosives-screening protocols.

But then, how far do we go? How far should we go? Is this not, in some respects, an unwinnable arms race?

I haven't even touched on the deadly dangers of shoulder-launched missiles and other military-grade weapons available around the world. You could hunker down unseen in any of a thousand neighborhoods abutting major airports, armed with a portable launcher or a gun loaded with pyrophoric shells. Heck, inducing panic needn't involve an airplane at all. An explosion in a crowded terminal would have basically the same impact as downing a plane. (The concept is not new; airport terminals have been attacked in years past.)

How do we meet a threat that is able to take on so many forms and employ so many deadly tactics? Do we X-ray every cabin cleaner's lunch pail, every gate agent's knapsack? Do we set up body scanners to peer beneath passengers' clothing? Do we bulletproof every plane and spend billions putting anti-missile devices into their bellies? Do we turn our airports into armed fortresses? To some extent, this is the path we have chosen. But the truth is, there will always be a way for a determined enough adversary to thwart whatever measures we enforce. We'll never be completely safe, and we should stop pretending otherwise. Civil aviation will continue to be a target, and air crimes will never disappear. And as I have said several times in the past, while it makes for lousy theater, the real work of thwarting attacks belongs to police officers, the FBI and our intelligence agencies, not to guards at the airport.

Acknowledging a certain level of risk is not the same as rolling over. We can and should improve our odds. Doing so, however, will require us to be the one thing we thus far haven't been: reasonable. If anything, security overall ought to be scaled back, into a leaner but more focused operation. The suggestion that we have too much security at airports is anathema to safety zealots and runs counter to a national mind-set preoccupied with terrorism. But it's true.

Security experts generally agree that random searches are a useful tool. Routine is weakness, and the more predictable our methods are, the easier they are to defeat. But as presently constituted, our system is fundamentally flawed in that it focuses on rooting out weapons rather than the people who might use them. This demands that we treat everybody as a potential suspect. Every passenger -- old and young, infants and the infirm -- is seen as a potential terrorist. This presents an insurmountable challenge in a country where 2 million fly each day, and it has stuck us with a gigantic but ultimately ineffective apparatus.

As the IRA is reported to have said when it was trying to murder Margaret Thatcher, "You have to be 100 percent successful every time. We only need to succeed once."

It would be foolish to completely abandon efforts to screen for legitimately dangerous items -- guns and bombs -- but perhaps it's time to put a greater emphasis on passenger profiling. "Profiling" is a dirty word to some, but it needn't be a one-dimensional preoccupation with skin color or national origin. Effective profiling uses a multipoint approach that takes in a wide range of characteristics. It's a slippery slope, some will argue, from this scientific form of profiling to the cruder and more politically incorrect variety, but it's worth noting that Israel's airports, including the notoriously secure Ben Gurion International, have used it successfully for many years. TSA has in fact been training staff in the finer points of behavioral pattern recognition, but I reckon that screeners remain a lot more adept at picking out hobby knives and scissors than picking out criminals or terrorists.

Give us good intelligence gathering and law enforcement, together with on-site random searches, thorough explosives scanning, and smartly managed profiling, and what have we got? A security strategy that is frankly pretty good. As good as it can be, anyway.

We can dream. Until then, the big question is, are we more or less safe than we were eight years ago? Safer, I would say. But not as safe, or as sensible, as we could be.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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