December 27 - Aviation System Security


December 27, 2009

The Christmas attempt by a Nigerian man with PETN (one of the most powerful explosives known) affixed to his body to cause harm to an internationally-originated Delta Air Lines flight on approach to Detroit shone a bright light on much that is wrong with the U.S. approach to aviation system security. It is welcome news that President Obama has ordered an airline industry security review, so long as it is strategic in nature.

It makes abundant sense in the immediate aftermath of a suspected terrorist attempt to tighten security measures to ensure that there is not a wider terrorist operation underway; to guard against would-be copycats; and to adequately complete an investigation such that there is sufficient visibility to the nature and extent of a threat. The restrictions ordered by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on passenger movement and use of personal items during the one-hour period prior to landing in the U.S. would defy logic, if they were kept in place longer than what near-term security precautions warranted. Someone wanting to terrorize would simply endeavor to do so 65 minutes prior to landing, or during the beginning or middle of a flight.

The immediate post 9/11 security priority for the U.S. was to prevent a commercial airline from ever again being used as a weapon-of-mass-destruction. Airport screening was strengthened substantially, the Air Marshall program was expanded, cabin and cockpit crews were trained in advanced anti-terrorism techniques, many pilots were armed, F-16s were placed on alert, and most importantly, cockpit doors were reinforced and passengers were forever transformed from passive participants in a time of threat to able defenders. All of this was accomplished within a relatively short period of time after the U.S. was attacked on 9/11.

From that point forward the highest and best use of each incremental security dollar spent should have been on intelligence gathering, risk-management analysis and sharing, and on fundamental police work such that terrorists would never reach an airport, much less board an airplane. What does the immediate investigation into the near-calamity on Christmas reveal?

  • The father of the accused terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, informed U.S. officials months ago that he was concerned about his son’s extreme religious views. Not a friend, not a teacher, but his very own father issued the warning!
  • The accused Nigerian is in the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database (550K names) maintained by the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center. While not on the selectee list (14K names) or no-fly list (4K names), should not some of our scarce security dollars have been used to ensure that he was placed on the selectee list, questioned and subjected to extra searching prior to being allowed to board the Detroit-bound flight from Amsterdam?

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared today on ABC’s This Week show and unabashedly steered clear of government accountability arguing that the U.S. did not have enough information to keep the accused man from boarding the flight or to add him to the selectee or no-fly list. However, his father warned us! Moreover, the UK’s Daily Mail reports that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was banned from Britain; his last visa request refused! That the suspect did not, but should have, received additional questioning and physical screening is where the U.S. government’s focus should be, versus on the in-flight security illusion of restricted passenger movement, if it is intended to be more than temporary.

President Obama is right to review aviation system security. In doing so his advisors should consider that security-theater in fact also inconveniences all passengers, renders air travel less appealing for business travelers and negatively impacts our struggling economy as aviation drives commercial activity and job creation. What’s more, it is unconscionable that the U.S. has been without a TSA leader for a year and reprehensible that one Senator’s extreme political views are allowed to hold our country hostage and put our citizens in harm’s way by blocking the confirmation of President Obama’s nominee to run TSA, Erroll Southers. Politics trumping passenger security is a national disgrace! We desperately require leadership at TSA now.

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