Ever since 9/11, the U.S. has spent around $6 billion a year on airport security, largely to fund the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and allocated billions more in related costs to the FBI, CIA, Defense Department, and other federal agencies. The question however persists: Are American airports and flights safer than they were prior to the attacks on New York and Washington by al Qaeda terrorists in hijacked planes? Judging from the failure of U.S. and foreign security measures to keep the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, off Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas day, the international aviation security system is broken and the tens of billions of dollars spent each year on protecting planes and airports around the globe has largely been wasted.
Why? Because in the case of Abdulmutallab, as with the 2002 incident involving notorious shoe bomber Richard Reid, it was the passengers on the affected flights, not the TSA or European airport security screening systems, that ultimately brought the threat under control. In other words, passengers: two; airport security screening systems: zero. And, frankly, if the terrorists had been better bomb-builders both devices might have brought down the two planes before the passengers could even react.
Napolitano isn't the right person to correct the many security problems and lapses revealed by the Christmas day bomber.
So, what's wrong with our present aviation security system? First, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is not up to the job and should be fired by the president. Ms. Napolitano, who prefers to categorize terrorism as "man-caused disasters," was quick to defend her agency in the wake of Abdulmutallab's arrest by announcing on the Sunday morning talk shows that "the system worked." It worked, of course, only if we regard the passengers as the last line of defense. Her unfortunate statement suggests that she is so inexperienced and slow-witted that she really believed it had worked or she is so political that she is willing to lie and dissemble on key matters of national security. Either way, she isn't the right person to correct the many security problems and lapses revealed by the Abdulmutallab case.
The second major problem is that Abdulmutallab never should have been given a visa to the United States, especially after the British government rescinded his visa a year earlier and in the wake of his father's meeting with officials of the U.S. embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, when he warned them that his son had become a dangerous jihadist. Most alarming of all, Abdulmutallab bought a one-way ticket with cash and no one singled him out for additional screening, despite the fact that this has been part of the terrorist aviation profile for more than thirty years.
Obviously, the various intelligence agencies that are funded with tens of billions of taxpayer dollars failed once again "to connect the dots." Although he was on a 560,000-person terrorist sympathizer list, Abdulmutallab was neither on the "selectee" or "no fly" lists, which the government has found impossible to effectively maintain and administer, even though there are only 18,000 people on both lists combined.
Richard Reid, for his part, was the son of a career criminal and had more than ten convictions himself, even though he was only nineteen at the time he tried to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami. He was a member of the most radical Moslem mosque in Britain and had received terrorist training in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, yet he was apparently not deemed a threat by any intelligence agency.
A third major problem with present aviation security is that it is too politically correct. Jay Leno had a sketch on his program one night where TSA officers held up an old woman by her ankles and shook her violently while heavily armed terrorists passed through the metal detector with all manner of weapons. All passengers are not equal risks and the system should spend the vast majority of its time processing those in high-risk categories. Although there are reports from time-to-time about al Qaeda seeking to recruit female suicide bombers and males from non-Muslim countries with American or European names, nearly all suicide bombers have been young men between the ages of 17 and 35 from Muslim countries. The Israelis figured this out years ago and give far less screening to Hebrew speakers and travelers from friendly countries than they do to people with high risk profiles.
The delay to expeditiously enact a Trusted Traveler program in the more than eight years since 9/11 contributes to the screening burden at U.S. and foreign airports. Rather than permit regular travelers to voluntarily provide some background information and a biometric to the government, thereby expediting the screening process, the U.S. and many foreign governments have been slow to implement such programs, which have been criticized by privacy advocates. This makes no sense at all. Terrorists are unlikely to sign up for pre-screening programs and should be unmasked if the program is operating properly.
Fourth, the U.S. and many of its European allies place too much reliance on new technologies to solve our airport screening problems. Naturally, Secretary Napolitano, in the wake of her egregious comments, announced the deployment of millions of dollars of new equipment at airports to scan passengers. While such technologies, especially so-called explosives "sniffers" and full body scanners, may make it more difficult for terrorists to smuggle weapons or explosives onto airplanes, technology is not a panacea and must be part of a larger seamless security program involving better intelligence, better visa controls, trusted traveler programs and better training for TSA workers.
One area where technology can certainly make flying safer is in the construction of stronger aircraft. For decades the Israelis have strengthened the walls of baggage holds on El Al jetliners, adding blast plugs to vent bomb pressure, and using reinforced materials to make shipping containers. Had Pan Am 103—which was destroyed by a bomb in a suitcase in 1989—had a reinforced baggage hold it might not have broken up in mid-air and subsequently crashed, with the loss of all on board and eleven on the ground. Abdulmutallab had explicitly requested a seat in Row 19, over the plane's center fuel tank, and engineers may want to consider hardening this area so that small shoe or underwear bombs be as likely to have catastrophic consequences if detonated on a plane.
A fifth and final issue is the Obama administration's decision to treat Abdulmutallab is an ordinary criminal and not as a foreign combatant. Even the president's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, admits that Abdulmutallab's interrogators "got valuable intelligence" from him until he was read his Miranda rights and told he could have an attorney, at which point he ceased all cooperation and refused to talk further with the FBI. The administration does not appear to understand terrorism and is in the process of attempting to criminalize terrorist acts once again rather than treating the problem as a war, a sure formula for disaster which is likely to lead to the deaths of many Americans. President Obama demonstrated his failure to comprehend the seriousness of the attempted Christmas day attack by remaining in Hawaii on vacation and not even making a public statement on the issue for three days.
In short, our aviation security system is broken and it is only a matter of time before terrorists figure this out and succeed in carrying out multiple successful attacks against civil aviation that could result in thousands of deaths and potentially paralyze global commerce.