By Michael Hammerschlag     1500 wd                             HOME




            The battle in Afghanistan, despite the bravery of our troops, isn’t really a war- for the last 15 years our dominance has been so complete that we simply annihilate our designated enemies. This war, as the President warned, would be fought at home- by bystanders and victimized innocents. If so, they are still almost defenseless, because the security measures taken to defend the air transport system have been pitifully lacking. From the beginning the foolish conclusion was that the problem wasn’t bad people getting on planes, it was weapons; so little old ladies and pilots were terrorized for their nail clippers without any thought or reason. Weapons, though, can be made from anything- a plastic knife, a rope to strangle, a pen, a baggage cart. 5 burly hijackers might not even need weapons! The screening was promiscuous, stupid, overwhelming- not directed towards likely threats, so mostly wasted. The only solution is armed skymarshals.


Meanwhile, while pilots were subject to humiliating searches by minimum wage screeners; 3 million unsearched and unscreened checked bags a day were dumped into the holds; and 600,000 ramp workers- cabin cleaners, gas refuelers, caterers, cargo haulers were allowed access to planes with NO daily security check. “It is assumed, dangerous as it may be, that if you’ve issued that badge to a person, they have successfully undergone a background check of the last 10 years,” says FAA NW rep Mike Fergus. Although the law says all bags must be inspected by end of the year, that’s impossible, unless Congress and the FAA take radical action. When reluctant Trans. Secretary Mineta admitted they wouldn’t be able to make the impossible Jan 17th deadline, he was pilloried instead of given the funding and power necessary, so he just changed the rules to call passenger bag-matching “screening”. The new Trans. Security Admin. has only been allotted $1.25 bil. of the $3-7 bil. they need. There are only 162 of the ~$1 mil CT scanners used to detect explosives installed in the US, but some 2200 more are needed to scan all bags. 90% of these machines are made by one company- Invision, which has been turning out only 8 a month but claims it could make 50. Another company-L3, could make 40 a month, so if they both instantly had the orders, funding, and facilities- it would still take over 2 years. But according to Invision spokesman Alisa Hicks, “There have been no new orders as a result of 911.” There is a $16 mil order that was in the works before that time, but the massive urgent order from Transportation hasn’t materialized, they’re expected  to shell out only enough for 150 machines in fiscal 2002. The best US airport: San Francisco, is screening 20% of the checked bags with it’s 13 machines (“SFO ordered CTX’s directly on their own”, said Hicks), but the average across the US is under 8%. Only 55 airports out of 455 even have bomb detector machines, which search for the densities of explosives- now 100% of the time by law. 1 out of 5 bags will trigger an alert, which “usually can be resolved by the operator” by adjusting settings on the machine. There are also bomb sniffer machines, that search for the chemical scent of explosives, which may be even more effective than CT; and live human MRI scanners, which tend to be too anatomically correct. Air cargo, including Postal packages, must also be screened or sniffed- Pan Am 103 was brought down by 8oz of explosives.


Forget the stories of hurrying passengers shutting down terminals: since Oct., a Miami Airport employee was found guilty for making fake security badges, then with his 12 compatriots deported as illegal aliens; a man arrested in Dallas had a fake pilot’s certificate, fake airman’s medical certificate, multiple passports and Social Security numbers; an employee at the LAX duty-free shop in a test smuggled 10 guns, 7 blocks of inert C-4, and 4 hand grenades past Argenbright security by just flashing his badge. Inspectors examining security have been terrified ramp workers smuggling supposed drugs would unknowingly put a bomb on board.


The truth is it’s a miracle that 5 to 10 planes haven’t been brought down by checked luggage bombs- Ashcroft’s much maligned roundup may have been successful in breaking up Al Qaeda cells. The lame compromise to allow bag matching to passengers (done for years in Europe) to substitute for actual inspections accomplishes nothing- if the fiends are ready to die. They even made an insane exception for connecting flights, but Ramzi Yousef (the ’93 WTC bomber), in his ’95 plan to blow up 11 planes over the Pacific, was planning to do just that- put bombs on planes that went from Philippines to Seoul, Taipei, + Hong Kong and get off as the planes continued to LAX.


Before he allowed the passenger screeners to become Federal employees (which 100 Senators had approved), President Bush was more worried about Democratic unions than untrained screeners. The 28,000 new Federal screeners will not even be required to be high-school graduates, though they need to be citizens (forcing 25% to be fired). One Congressman thinks it would actually require about 40,000 to cover the bomb detection machines. The Skymarshal program has been another sham- only a handful (2-5%) have been hired. A bitter pilot, in a devastating commentary says, “I have yet to see an air marshal on any of my flights and I have not spoken to another pilot who has (except those flying out of Reagan National Airport).”  Like Enron execs, Congress ensured resources go where they are needed.


I have a simple cheap solution: allow local + state police, and federal cops, to fly free anywhere - they know how to handle weapons and recognize shady characters. Train marksmen from larger departments in using low velocity fragmenting bullets in aircraft, and certify them. Police Departments could even donate officers for 1 or 2 days a month: wars should entail some sacrifice. National Guardsmen in the airport are another cosmetic gesture, useful if, as the pilot says, someone tries to hijack the airport and fly it into a building. I’m waiting for them to start firing into a crowded terminal when a late passenger races for a plane and doesn’t hear the panicked order to stop. Put them on the tarmac access to check ramp workers’ ID and belongings. Pilots, however, should be allowed to carry aircraft guns, and flight attendants stun guns, which still haven’t been approved. The USAir pilot led off in handcuffs said, “Why are you worried about tweezers when I could crash the plane?”  Zero tolerance? No, zero brains. Pilots are not the same as everyone else, and a Middle Eastern man doesn’t present the same threat as an elderly woman from Dubuque. Profiling is essential if we don’t want to waste resources and cause huge delays.


I was supposed to fly over Manhattan on 9-11 and did 4 days later. I’ve played out again and again what I would have done in a hijacking to assuage my rage at the terrorists and my governments’ incompetence (The FAA might, if they had issued a detailed warning instead of the cryptic “beware cockpit intrusion” at 9:05am, have saved the victims in the Pentagon and Pa. planes, which crashed 30 and 60 minutes later. Actor James Woods claims he flew with the supposed hijackers from Boston to LA a month before 9-11; they were so suspicious he thought they were about to hijack the plane, but nothing was done. Tardy fighter planes had to fly 250 miles because we only had 6-7 bases on strip alert in the entire country.) I think I would have known it was a suicide attack right away- in a political newsletter I predicted a terrorist attack on New York or DC…  last July. The 911 attacks have probably cost NYC, the travel industry, the economy, the world- hundreds of billion dollars. Another mass downing of planes would cripple the entire airline system, divide us into separate colonies again, and collapse the tentative economy, which was Bin Laden’s last instruction. In the 4th qtr alone United lost $1.4 bil, US Air $1 bil, American $800 mil (excluding the partial bailout)- the airlines themselves wouldn’t survive another blow. West German intelligence estimates 70,000 went through the Al Qaeda training camps, and they can’t all be as moronic as Richard Reid, who could have crashed a $150 million plane, but for a 50¢ Bic lighter. In the Gulf War we moved ½ million troops and equipment to the other side of the world in 4½ months, we put a man on the Moon in 8½ years; we can do this: take the proper defensive measures. It is true that the best defense is a good offense, but also that an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure. We’ve reacted stupidly and slothfully to the brutal attack of Sept. 11; and the evil ones won’t be patient forever.


Michael Hammerschlag has written commentaries + articles for  Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser, Columbia Journalism Review,  MediaChannel,  Moscow News, Tribune, and + Guardian;  was a TV reporter and a former travel agent. His website is  e-mail 


  TOWN MEETING w Sam Donaldson (AUDIO)- TERRORISM  + Airline Security  11/8     REALPLAYER                                                                       

  NPR TALK of NATION (AUDIO)- Comments on Promiscuous Airline Security - 11/21 3:10pm
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