COPY-AND-PASTE CITATION

William H. Calvin, "The more serious failure," Washington Post letters column (Sunday, 23 September 2001).  See also http://WilliamCalvin.com/2001/WashPostLtr.htm.

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William H. Calvin

University of Washington
Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA


This is the original version (op-ed length) of what was shortened and appeared as a letter in the Washington Post


The More Serious Failure

 

Tom Friedman says the intelligence community might be forgiven for not having imagined the events of September 11, but I think that applies only to imagining the whole audacious chain:  suicidal-but-competent pilots, various teams of them living openly in the U.S., then all breezing through airport security the same morning.

            Certainly there should have been no difficulty in imagining the links of the deadly chain.  Indeed, the word Assassins refers to a thousand-year-long tradition that included similar self-sacrificing terrorist acts in the Middle East.  Israel has recently suffered much from suicide bombers.  The kamikaze pilots even used their airplane fuel as a bomb.

            And we had lots of warning that, for anything except handguns and obvious bombs, domestic airport security was a joke.  One government study after another said it was a disaster waiting to happen.  There was a gaping “hole in the fence,” and we should not be surprised that someone finally drove a truck through it.

            It was obvious to any causal traveler to Europe that airport security was taken seriously there, done by pros rather than by a constant turnover of the poorly trained and poorly paid.  It certainly should have been obvious to any congressman or airline executive.  They are the ones who have so obviously failed us, trying to do airport security on the cheap in the face of evidence for how to do the job right.  Congress will try to put the responsibility off onto the intelligence community, but we should not forget what some peoples’ passion for irresponsibly cheap government has cost us.

             Furthermore, the European system (largely copied from Israel’s thirty-year-old system) would likely have caught some of the assassins of September 11.  While European airport security uses technology, its hallmark is interviewing passengers, not just two standard questions at the ticket counter but repeated conversations when passengers first enter the airport, while they stand in line, at the security barrier, and again while in the boarding area.  The people who do the interviewing are smarter than most of the people they interview, and they have been well-trained.

            I cannot imagine that all 19 hijackers were free of stage fright; interviewing would likely have suggested that something was up and spread an alarm that closed down airports.  So ours was not a beginner’s mistake but a sloppy practice by international standards that was never cleaned up by those we trusted.

Since a lot of American airline personnel are going to be laid off by the reduced air travel, we might quickly upgrade our airport security system to approximate that of Europe by retraining them and paying realistic wages.  My impression is that many of the European interviewers are retrained airline personnel such as ticket agents, already experienced in talking with harried passengers.

            While the master assassins of September 11 may well switch tactics next time (a far larger problem), now that there has been a proof of concept we will have to suffer with copycats, just as a well-publicized suicide may lead to a new rash of bridge jumpers.  Technology alone will not identify these copycats.

 

William H. Calvin
Seattle

 


Shortened version which appeared as a letter:


Questioning Passengers

 

Sunday, September 23, 2001; Page B06

One government study after another said our airport security was a disaster waiting to happen. Our lax security was not a beginner's mistake but sloppy practice.

In Europe, airport security has been taken much more seriously. The system there (largely copied from Israel's) probably would have caught some of the Sept. 11 assassins. While the European system uses technology, its hallmark is interviewing passengers, and not just two standard questions at the ticket counter but repeated conversations with passengers when they first enter the airport, while they stand in line at the security barrier and again in the boarding area. The people who do the interviewing have been well-trained.

I cannot imagine that all 19 hijackers were free of stage fright; interviewing them could have suggested that something was up and spread an alarm that closed down airports. Since a lot of American airline personnel are going to be laid off by the reduced air travel, we might quickly upgrade our airport security system to approximate that of Europe by retraining them to be interviewers.

WILLIAM H. CALVIN

Seattle


From the FAA report on the year 2000 (at http://cas.faa.gov/crimacts/pdf/crim2000.pdf):

During the past few years, the relatively low number of incidents that were recorded may have been interpreted as an indication that the threat to civil aviation was decreasing. The fact that the number of aviation-related incidents in 2000 increased by 75% proves such an interpretation to be premature. To be sure, the threat to civil aviation has not significantly decreased. In addition to the ever-present threat of a terrorist hijacking or bombing, an individual who hijacks a plane to seek asylum, a guerrilla group that attacks an airport, or a terrorist group that bombs an airline ticket office, constitutes a threat as well. The increase in the number of incidents in 2000 attests to the fact that civil aviation continues to be a target of terrorists and non-terrorists alike.

Although there were no watershed terrorist incidents in 2000, such as the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103, the terrorist threat remains. The most recent significant aviation-related terrorist action was the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane by members of a Kashmiri separatist group. There continues to be concern that the hijacking may either be copied or spur others to commit acts, because this incident succeeded in gaining the release of prisoners and the hijackers have never been caught. Another threat is attributed to terrorist financier Usama Bin Laden, who has been indicted for the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Although Bin Laden is not known to have attacked civil aviation, he has both the motivation and the wherewithal to do so. Bin Laden’s anti-Western and anti-American attitudes make him and his followers a significant threat to civil aviation, particularly to U.S. civil aviation. Finally, another example that the terrorist threat has not diminished is the plot by convicted World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef of several years ago. In 1994, Yousef masterminded a conspiracy to place explosive devices on as many as 12 U.S. airliners flying out of the Far East. In December 1994, as a test for his more elaborate scheme, Yousef placed and exploded a device on a Philippine Airlines plane killing one person. Although Yousef is currently in prison, at least one other accused participant in the conspiracy remains at large. There are concerns that this individual or others of Yousef’s ilk who may possess similar skills pose a continuing threat to civil aviation interests.

There is every reason to believe that civil aviation will continue to be an attractive target for terrorist groups. The publicity and fear generated by a terrorist hijacking or bombing of an aircraft can be a powerful attraction to a group seeking to make a statement or promote a particular cause.... 


 

 

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