March 26, 2002 — Continental Flight 11 blew up on a clear May night over Iowa, its tail shattered. Pilot Fred Gray wrestled the Boeing 707 back to a relatively level pitch and probably could have landed it had its tail not disintegrated.
Unable to steer, Gray and his two cockpit officers put on smoke masks and prepared for the inevitable crash, even going through the motions of observing their landing procedures in case they survived impact.
They did not. No one did.
The initial investigation determined that the plane, which had been on its way from Chicago to Kansas City, Mo., blew up because a passenger planted explosives in the rear lavatory. The FBI later declared that he had killed himself so his wife could get the insurance money. The 44 other people on board were collateral damage.
Soft Target: Airline security after 9/11
‘Very little difference’
Forty years later — and more than six months after the Sept. 11 attacks — much has changed, but not the fundamental reality: There remains no foolproof defense against an attack by a determined terrorist willing to die in the attempt, according to regulators, lawmakers, industry officials and government documents reviewed by MSNBC.com.
Emergency security measures have been enacted since November, intended to be stopgaps until an automated electronic system to scan every bag, checked or carried on, is in place. That is supposed to be by the end of the year, but federal officials say they cannot make the deadline. Until the system is in place, the Transportation Department is requiring airlines to match passengers with their checked luggage and is exploring more intrusive profiling procedures to identify passengers who may be potential threats.
Federal aviation officials and some security specialists said the new measures should be given a chance to work. “You can’t expect miracles in four months,” said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
In the view of Arnold Barnett, a management science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “it’s silly to say there’s been no progress. ... It’s harder for terrorists to get on airplanes or put explosives in cargo holds.”
But Barnett, whom the government has consulted on aviation security before and after Sept. 11, acknowledged that the new security rules were ill-suited to respond to a determined suicide attacker.
The measures “will not stop him,” Barnett said in an interview. At best, he said, they could have a deterrent effect on a zealot who might “find unappetizing [the] prospect of spending his life in prison” for a failed attack.
Noting the deterrent effect, Young said, “I doubt there will ever be another hijacking again,” and he put the likelihood of stopping any form of suicide attack at 99 percent because “we’ll be able to pick up the nuts.”
Young warned, however, that the remaining 1 percent of suicidal “zealots” would always pose a risk.
That margin of error, no matter how small, is all it would take for another disaster, said Stephen Luckey, head of the security committee of the Air Line Pilots Association.
“There’s no silver bullets,” he said. “There’s nothing that will fix everything and nothing that’s foolproof.”
Security experts agree that there are only two sure-fire ways to stop a suicide attack: intercept the attacker or intercept his weapon.
Reliably intercepting attackers ahead of time would require screening methods so precise that they would be unacceptable to civil liberty groups, according to activists, lawmakers and security analysts.
“Already, unfortunately, we’re running into some opposition from some of the civil rights groups with passenger examination,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee, said in an interview. The American Civil Liberties Union urged Congress in January to ban all profiling based on “race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or political opinion.”
Israel’s El Al Airlines has used close-scrutiny profiling techniques for years, and Young said they were worth exploring domestically. “What’s wrong with that?” he asked. “You’re talking about security.”
For now, domestic passengers are chosen for closer scrutiny largely on a random basis. Michael Boyd, a former airline executive who analyzes the industry, said passengers were being “Congressman Dingell-ed,” after John Dingell, the 75-year-old Michigan Democrat who was strip-searched at Reagan National Airport near Washington in January.
“They’re focusing on beating up little old ladies with tweezers,” Boyd said in an interview.
Tracking checked bags
Unwilling to wait for court battles over profiling to play out, regulators and the airlines have concentrated since Sept. 11 on adopting more easily achievable, less politically complicated procedures to intercept weapons, especially bombs.
Luckey said tougher decisions must be made, and quickly. “The intent is there, but it seems like everyone seems to be dragging their feet,” he said.
The new measure that has gotten the most notice — cross-matching checked luggage with passengers to ensure that no baggage is placed aboard an aircraft unless its owner is also on board — was almost immediately revealed to have a serious hole in it.
The policy, enacted by federal regulators in response to the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which President Bush signed late last year, mandated that bags be cross-matched only on the originating leg of a flight.
MSNBC.com reported last week that officials of the Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, which assumed responsibility for airport security from the Federal Aviation Administration, had not yet started a promised test of bag-matching on connecting flights, a pilot program that TSA Administrator John Magaw promised more than two months ago.
Boyd said anyone could still check a bomb-laden bag and board the first leg of his flight, then simply not board the connecting flight. That is believed to be what happened in 1988 when Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland.
No foolproof system
Bag-matching is only one of three secondary security measures called for in the security legislation.
One — opening every bag and searching it by hand — has been all but rejected as time-consuming and ineffective, relying on agents of unpredictable skill and experience. In addition, a would-be suicide bomber could bypass a hand search of his baggage by simply planting the explosives on himself.
Another listed procedure is to check each bag and passenger with bomb-sniffing dogs, which analysts — including Boyd, otherwise a prominent critic of the TSA — said was highly effective. But dogs can get sloppy as they age or tire, Boyd said, and they are considered prohibitively expensive.
Experts and industry analysts all said the best hope of tightening the security net was to adopt a wide spectrum of approaches. The new security law, however, requires the TSA and the airline industry to adopt “one or more” of the secondary measures, wording that experts complained was tantamount to requiring airlines and airports to adopt only one new security regime. Even Rebecca Trexler, a spokeswoman for the TSA, conceded that was a fair interpretation.
Boyd, asked about the low level of action the law requires, said, “Anyone who was awake and not a politician would have said ‘stop.’”
But Luckey cautioned against imposing too many detailed requirements, which he said might create a culture in which “crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s” would come at the expense of “actual intelligence-type threat information.”
“I’m not real sure how this is going to be addressed or how to do it effectively and efficiently,” he said.
Holes in the system
Proponents say the arrival of universal electronic bag screening would lay most of those issues to rest.
However, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, Kenneth Mead, told Congress this month that the Dec. 31 deadline would not be met. Projections for universal deployment of electronic systems vary, but the consensus is no sooner than 2004, the date FAA Administrator Jane Garvey offered in congressional testimony late last year.
Security experts said that was unacceptable, warning that the stopgap security rules now in place were insufficient in the face of a determined suicide terrorist.
“Can [current security measures] do the job they are required to do? The answer unequivocally is no,” Boyd said. Anyone who believes the nation’s airports and airplanes are safer since the security legislation was enacted, he said, has “probably just come back from a recent vacation on Mars.”
For example, the stopgap rules do nothing to protect airports from car bombs, Luckey said. They also do not address the threat posed by confederates, possibly working for an airport contractor or even an airline, who could slip non-metallic explosives to a passenger who had already gone through security. Continuing passengers, for example, are not usually rescreened when they transfer to a connecting flight and stay inside the terminal.
‘Thousands of proposals’
The alternative rules also encourage “other means or technology approved” by the TSA. “We don’t need 1960s, 1970s X-ray technology,” said Mica, the House aviation subcommittee chairman.
An agency official told MSNBC.com that TSA scientific panels had sifted through “thousands of proposals” since Sept. 11 and that a formal solicitation for white papers on specific proposals was imminent.
Trexler, the TSA spokeswoman, would not discuss specific proposals, but she said promising technologies included biometrics systems (which electronically recognize a person’s physical features), trace explosives portals (which can examine multiple passengers simultaneously) and so-called Z-backscatter X-ray passenger screens (which detect low-density organic materials in complex backgrounds).
Security analysts said regulators had a responsibility to make sure that nothing proven to work became the casualty of interagency turf wars and bureaucratic concern over redundancy and inefficiency, a historic barrier that Young promised to eliminate.
Everything must be used together, experts insisted. Otherwise, said Boyd, the industry analyst, regulators would be reduced to “focusing on what kind of press they can get by emptying out Los Angeles terminals.”
Even then, said Luckey, the pilots’ security chief, “there’s very little defense against someone that’s motivated and has a suicidal tendency. That was proven all the way back in World War II with the kamikazes.”
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