Thursday, September 29, 2005

(T)error in the skies

Annie Jacobsen's articles in WomensWallStreet, under the extravagant title (trademarked, no less) "Terror in the Skies" described her experiences aboard Northwest Flight 327 in June 2004. Briefly, the behavior of a group of men of Middle Eastern appearance strongly suggested to her that they were conducting a dry run or "probe" for another aircraft-based terrorist incident. Besides that, she felt that the investigation of the incident was inadequate or a downright cover-up.

Her story was much debated in the blog world, although the mainstream media all but ignored it (surprised?). Comments were by no means universally supportive of Jacobsen, even among security hawks. It was pointed out that many of the actions she found threatening were ambiguous; that the men who aroused her suspicions were interviewed by law enforcement officials when they exited the plane, and no grounds were found for holding them. There were other purported anomalies in her story. She was accused of inflating an incident that might have been all in her head into a sensationalistic pseudo-revelation.

I don't know what, if anything, really happened on Flight 327. But Jacobsen has taken the ball and run with it, continuing to research reports of apparent terrorist probes on other flights and trying to sort out the mystery wrapped inside an enigma inside a muddle that is the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. Her book in which she ties all her investigations together, titled Terror in the Skies: Why 9/11 Could Happen Again, promises if nothing else to be a cracker of a read.

Thanks to Dymphna at Gates of Vienna, we are told that Jacobsen concludes in her book that aviation security in the United States is "all for show." In support of that claim, she quotes a Federal Air Marshal who whispered in her ear. His statement is worth reproducing in its entirety:
You know how youd go to the airport, before 9/11, and an agent there, somebody who worked for the airlines would say to you, “Did you pack your own bags?” Well, it was all for show. Those agents weren’t trained in detecting whether or not someone was lying. The procedure was there to make the flying public feel good. That’s what happened with 327. They all came running like in the movies, but it was all for show. Who interviewed the men? FAMS [Federal Air Marshals]. We’re not trained in interviewing terror suspects. We don’t know what to look for. And the FBI at the airport? I won’t go there. Who really should have been there? ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. Period. ICE. But they weren’t. Why? Because management says probes aren’t happening on airplanes. The guys were there to make the passengers feel good, nothing more, nothing less.

Two years ago, I had a probing incident. It may have been one of the first. After it happened, no one knew what to do, there was no protocol. The guys involved in the incident sailed off into the crowd. What was I going to do? Run up, tap the guy on the shoulder and say, “I almost shot you, now I’d like to interview you?”

Instead, I filed a report about my probing incident. Basically I was told “it didn’t happen." Well, it did happen. Probes have been happening ever since. I doubt anybody ever even remotely considered you’d attract the kind of press you did. But you did. That’s a good thing.
It's hard to conceive a more screwed up aviation security system than the one currently in place. It's the worst of all possible worlds.

A brand new government department, created ab initio, with no experience and all the typical government issues -- random over- and under-staffing; institutional thinking; emphasis on process rather than results; employee unions; affirmative action hiring; sparring among bureaucrats for power and position; and a public relations mentality.

At the same time, it's under the Department of Transportation, in the charge of a hack put in place by the Clinton administration who himself very likely owes his job to the fact that he is Japanese-American and as a youngster was briefly placed in a World War II internment camp.

Sixty-plus years on, Norman Mineta is still grieving over a teddy bear or something that was confiscated from him. So thanks to his version of "Rosebud," security must conform to the sacred principles of political correctness, and no passenger can be acknowledged as being of more security concern than anyone else based on national origin. Hence, the well-known farce of equal-opportunity security clearance is enacted 10,000 times a day at American airports. Mineta has reportedly issued orders that no more than two people of Middle Eastern appearance on any flight may be selected for secondary questioning, which would have meant that on 9/11 eight of the 19 hijackers, at most, would have been stopped. But you can rest assured that your grandmother isn't carrying an explosive charge in her undergarments.

With hundreds of thousands of people flying every day, it should be obvious even to a government drone that it's impossible to apply serious screening to every loving one of them.

The original error is the assumption that airport security can be the main line of defense against aerial terrorist acts. The first line should be control of the country's borders -- knowing who is entering the country and seeing that some do not. The next line should be intelligence gathering and data mining. The next after that should be profiling, which doesn't mean automatically giving every person of a certain ethnicity the full security treatment; it means looking out for people with a constellation of characteristics that suggest they need extra scrutiny. Those people should be questioned, like El Al passengers, by security experts -- not by people who would be shelving groceries if not in a TSA uniform.

The x-ray machines and metal detectors and bomb-sniffing paraphernalia should be the last line of defense, a safety net, not the main deterrent.

What is it about modern governments that makes them so hopelessly incompetent, even in a mission that everyone officially proclaims is second to none in importance? Don't these people fly on planes themselves? Don't they have husbands, wives, children whose lives are at risk? Aren't there any DOT employees with a reasonable amount of job security and clout who can speak publicly, instead of playing Deep Throat, about the expensive, stressful and meaningless "show" of security that airline passengers endure today?

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