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On Point

Homeland Security: Defending Infrastructure

by Austin Bay
July 23, 2002

Part Two of Five

I'll call him The Concerned Aviator. He flies for a major airline. He collects stories, from passengers, of could-be weapons -- scissors, nail files -- that slipped through security. He mentions real weapons: the discovery of a knife with a three-inch blade, left in a seat. The perp? Whoa -- it slipped from an air marshal's pocket.

The Concerned Aviator's biggest gripes, however, aren't could-be weapons. He believes the next terrorist who tries to take a plane will be trounced by the passengers.

Chief among his big gripes is the phony premise of "positive bag identification." So what if every bag on board connects to a boarded passenger? A suicidal terrorist will pack his bag with TNT. "Until we get x-ray and detection machines as sensitive as the Israelis have in every airport," the Concerned Aviator says, "until every bag's examined, we're vulnerable."

But has the Concerned Aviator stopped flying? No way. He's a pro, transportation's his job, and he believes if we're alert we'll handle the risks. Next week, he'll fly into LAX, though he may cringe as he passes the El Al counter, as he thinks about the Egyptian gunman who murdered two Israelis there on July 4.

The Concerned Aviator provides a real-life insight into America's homeland defense dilemma. He's smart and highly skilled. However, we've got a big homeland to defend (many airports), and a complex, free society has so many vulnerabilities.

The man understands he faces new risks. Drop flares from his civilian plane, to confuse heat-seeking shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles as he lands vacationers in Miami? After 9-11, the thought's crossed his mind.

That's been the story among transport and security pros throughout America -- analyzing vulnerabilities, from the immediate to the outlandish. "But using a civilian transport as an ICBM was farfetched," the Concerned Aviator says.

The hijacked planes of 9-11 were, I point out, airborne versions of Tim McVeigh's truck in Oklahoma. "And that's the vulnerability issue with all transportation," he nods. "America's big. There're lots of trucks. What do we watch? ... We'll improve air safety when we run real background checks, on everybody, including ground crews," he says. "We need professional air marshals, not jerks dropping jackknives. Stuff the politically correct, security has to profile (passengers). We need a public who's awake."

But apply his requirements to trains and buses? Costs increase exponentially, as do the costs to civil liberty.

American experts like the Concerned Aviator see the vulnerabilities and know how to minimize them, but the job's big. Three years ago, a Coast Guard captain briefed me on his agency's financially strapped condition. Yes, the Bush administration's multibillion-dollar infusion of funds has to help, but billions don't shrink the length of U.S. coasts. The captain was addressing the drug war when he said: "We're porous. There's so much coast to cover. We have to rely on good intel, concentrate on likely sea routes (of entry)." There are only so many cutters and experienced Coast Guardsmen.

The week after Sept. 11, I spoke with a disaster-management expert about terrorist targets in Texas. The Houston Ship Channel, "with all those refineries," was his first reply. How do we protect it? "Hah," he said. "You tell me."

"Good prior intelligence," I replied.

"Sure, stop it before it happens. But we need to get it (intel), then get it out. I've had good experience working with the FBI, but there's just so much to consider."

The Concerned Aviator and his fellow pros make several similar points about homeland security. America's size means its borders can't be fully sealed. With imagination, the vulnerabilities in a complex society seem infinite. To paraphrase the Coast Guard captain, we must concentrate assets on "the likely."

Background checks? The pilot means we must know who "we" are in public transportation jobs. Take him a step further, and that means real visa and immigration control. They also emphasize professional security personnel, which means paying for pros.

The pilot's comment on public awareness is another way of emphasizing public support. But the nub of homeland security remains "knowing" -- getting timely, useful intelligence to the cockpit, to the local cops, to the secretary of homeland security. When that problem is solved, the Concerned Aviator won't sweat his flight to Miami.

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