Al Qaeda’s new threats to conduct a series of homicide hijackings should have encouraged the Department of Homeland Security to establish procedures that would provide the highest degree of security possible to the flying public in a cost-effective manner. Instead, during NBC’s Meet the Press, on August 3, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge remarked merely that airline passengers are much more secure today than they were before September 11, 2001. However, he conceded, “it will be several years until we get the kind of robust system that we need” to protect air travelers.
Almost two years and approximately $2.5 billion later, America’s airports are practically as vulnerable as they were on September 11. Real changes have not occurred, because the government continues to rely on feel-good methods while ignoring the reality: Profiling passengers works. Political correctness is being allowed to rule, even as passengers remain at risk. We are all familiar with the images of elderly ladies and invalids being “randomly” screened at every airport. Moreover, while passenger bags are screened, cargo is not. Pilots and flight attendants are closely scrutinized, yet at many locations the mechanics, office staff, caterers, and cleaners are not required to pass any security checks. I wasn’t surprised when a worried airline pilot told me: “Many of us operate within a mental framework of [the] probability, instead of possibility, of a terror attack.”
It takes an expert like Isaac Yeffet, the former El Al airline-security chief, to highlight the depth of U.S. airport-security problems. Recently, while traveling in the U.S., Yeffet was randomly chosen for special screening. After the security agent had swept his body with a hand-held metal-detecting wand and declared him “clean,” Yeffet pulled a cell phone from his pocket — to the agent’s amazement. A second screening also detected nothing. At this point, Yeffet suggested that, if the screener were to turn the device on, he might be able to detect suspicious objects. Needless to say, the agent was unsettled, but Yeffet was even more upset. “How many similar incidents happen every day in our airports?” he asks.
The U.S. leads the world when it comes to investigating accidents and mishaps, but it’s performing rather poorly in trying to prevent terrorist attacks. It needs to adopt a proactive security system that would save citizens’ lives as well as protecting infrastructure.
The new Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), which the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has announced it will start using, will be working on the basis of insufficient background information. CAPPS II defers to a mistaken notion of political correctness — for instance, it refrains from requesting the passengers’ place of birth, for fear of charges of “profiling.” Airlines are not allowed to ask for pertinent details, and their staffs have not been instructed to inquire about a passenger’s personal behavior or background. This may be politically correct, but it’s difficult to make a convincing case that security agents should not be paying special attention to passengers born in countries such as Syria, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Yemen, Morocco, Pakistan, Indonesia, and the Philippines — all countries that have supported, or continue to support, terrorist training. Moreover, CAPPS II will not have access to the law-enforcement data that would reveal a criminal record. Though they did not have criminal backgrounds, four of the 9/11 al Qaeda homicide hijackers had been on the FBI’s list of suspected terrorists before they entered the country. Had airlines been given these suspects’ names, and instructed their chiefs of security to arrest them, we might have prevented their deadly attacks.
The FBI should be sharing such information with the heads of security at all airlines operating in the U.S. Terrorist organizations will often pay criminals to do their work, and it is not unusual for terrorists to engage in criminal activities such as drugs and arms trafficking. Consequently, the FBI may already have criminal records on them.
CAPPS II should not only be collecting information from the government, but should also track passengers’ booking behavior. Ticket-counter employees should be instructed to note any diversion from normal patterns of booking a flight. Also, sudden and unusual changes in reservations should be flagged. The effectiveness of sophisticated screening devices hinges not only on the information they are fed, but also on the expertise and training of those operating them. Of the 1.5 billion pieces of baggage carried by U.S. airlines each year, at least 35 percent trigger a false alarm during screening — and the quality of follow-up checks depends entirely on the screeners. If 30,000 of the 55,000 hired recently have not even had a background check, and 50 security agents at New York’s JFK airport managed to pass background checks that failed to reveal their criminal records, how reliable is the service we’re getting from the TSA?
El Al Israel Airlines is thought to have the best security in the air-carrier industry, developed over four decades of dealing with a constant, growing, and changing threat. Rather than adopting the methods El Al has been perfecting for years, the U.S. is trying to reinvent the wheel, endangering the lives of millions of passengers in the process. The secret of El Al’s success is not the technology it uses; rather, it’s due mainly to the quality of security agents it employs and the methods they use. Each employee is carefully screened, thoroughly trained, tested continuously, and paid well. Ask Yeffet, who serves as a consultant to major American airlines, and he’ll tell you it’s the human factor that makes the difference. El Al screeners have been specifically trained to profile passengers; that same system should be adopted in the U.S.
In addition, the U.S. can also introduce new methods of in-flight passenger identification, like the system recently implemented in some Indian cities. Upon check-in, each passenger receives a boarding card containing a digital photo taken of him at the counter. Flight attendants are given a copy of each passenger’s boarding card, to ensure that travelers fly only to their scheduled destination.
To improve the screening of security personnel, we should adopt the Israeli method — and add, for example, tests to ensure that all employees are able to concentrate for long periods of time. This should be followed by constant updating and testing of both the overall security system and its personnel. With al Qaeda making new threats to our airlines and passengers, now is the time for the Homeland Security Department to discard political correctness and simply do the right thing: Adopt the best existing profiling methods out there, before another disaster occurs.
— Rachel Ehrenfeld is director of the New York-based American Center for Democracy and the author of Narco-terrorism: Evil Money, and the forthcoming book Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How To Stop It (September 2003). A version of this article appeared in Aviation Week and is reprinted with permission.