by Austin Bay
July 23, 2002
Part Two of Five
I'll call him The Concerned Aviator. He flies for a majorairline. He collects stories, from passengers, of could-be weapons --scissors, nail files -- that slipped through security. He mentions realweapons: 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-beweapons. He believes the next terrorist who tries to take a plane will betrounced by the passengers.
Chief among his big gripes is the phony premise of "positive bagidentification." So what if every bag on board connects to a boardedpassenger? A suicidal terrorist will pack his bag with TNT. "Until we getx-ray and detection machines as sensitive as the Israelis have in everyairport," the Concerned Aviator says, "until every bag's examined, we'revulnerable."
But has the Concerned Aviator stopped flying? No way. He's apro, transportation's his job, and he believes if we're alert we'll handlethe risks. Next week, he'll fly into LAX, though he may cringe as he passesthe El Al counter, as he thinks about the Egyptian gunman who murdered twoIsraelis there on July 4.
The Concerned Aviator provides a real-life insight intoAmerica's homeland defense dilemma. He's smart and highly skilled. However,we've got a big homeland to defend (many airports), and a complex, freesociety has so many vulnerabilities.
The man understands he faces new risks. Drop flares from hiscivilian plane, to confuse heat-seeking shoulder-fired anti-aircraftmissiles as he lands vacationers in Miami? After 9-11, the thought's crossedhis mind.
That's been the story among transport and security prosthroughout America -- analyzing vulnerabilities, from the immediate to theoutlandish. "But using a civilian transport as an ICBM was farfetched," theConcerned Aviator says.
The hijacked planes of 9-11 were, I point out, airborne versionsof Tim McVeigh's truck in Oklahoma. "And that's the vulnerability issue withall transportation," he nods. "America's big. There're lots of trucks. Whatdo we watch? ... We'll improve air safety when we run real backgroundchecks, on everybody, including ground crews," he says. "We needprofessional air marshals, not jerks dropping jackknives. Stuff thepolitically correct, security has to profile (passengers). We need a publicwho's awake."
But apply his requirements to trains and buses? Costs increaseexponentially, as do the costs to civil liberty.
American experts like the Concerned Aviator see thevulnerabilities and know how to minimize them, but the job's big. Threeyears ago, a Coast Guard captain briefed me on his agency's financiallystrapped condition. Yes, the Bush administration's multibillion-dollarinfusion 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, concentrateon likely sea routes (of entry)." There are only so many cutters andexperienced Coast Guardsmen.
The week after Sept. 11, I spoke with a disaster-managementexpert about terrorist targets in Texas. The Houston Ship Channel, "with allthose refineries," was his first reply. How do we protect it? "Hah," hesaid. "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'sjust so much to consider."
The Concerned Aviator and his fellow pros make several similarpoints about homeland security. America's size means its borders can't befully sealed. With imagination, the vulnerabilities in a complex societyseem infinite. To paraphrase the Coast Guard captain, we must concentrateassets on "the likely."
Background checks? The pilot means we must know who "we" are inpublic transportation jobs. Take him a step further, and that means realvisa and immigration control. They also emphasize professional securitypersonnel, which means paying for pros.
The pilot's comment on public awareness is another way ofemphasizing public support. But the nub of homeland security remains"knowing" -- getting timely, useful intelligence to the cockpit, to thelocal cops, to the secretary of homeland security. When that problem issolved, the Concerned Aviator won't sweat his flight to Miami.