TRAVELING IN A TIME OF TERROR
By Joe Brancatelli
January 6, 2010 -- There is an immediate and foolproof way to end terrorism against travelers: Ground all the planes.
Facetious as it sounds, the suggestion underlines an undeniable truth about traveling in a time of terror. The only air-travel system that is guaranteed to be secure is the one in which planes never fly. Anytime an airline puts a plane full of passengers in the sky, a complex web of political, financial, social, and governmental compromises have been made.
Keep that reality in mind as self-serving talking heads chatter in the aftermath of the Underwear Bomber's attempt to take down Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day. You can always make passengers and planes more secure than they already are. It just depends on how close you want to bring the system to a total halt. If you fly, you will have to accept some risk. If an airline operates, it will be in some danger. And if a nation permits commercial air travel, it creates a target for terrorists.
How do we improve our security without strangling air travel and the daily commerce that depends on it? There are some relatively simple and commonsense things we can do to reduce the risk that the next Underwear Bomber--or Shoe Bomber or Who-Knows-What-Article-of-Clothing Bomber--will kill travelers and create the kind of political and emotional havoc we've seen in the last two weeks.
Speak the Truth
Here's something that no politician, Republican or Democrat, will tell you: There will be a next time. Somehow, somewhere, someday, there will be another successful attack against a commercial airliner, and it won't necessarily mean our security regimens "failed." As a nation, we've been fighting the "war on terror" in the skies since the early 1960s, when the first lone gunman walked onto a plane, waved a revolver, and yelled, "Take this plane to Cuba!" There is no such thing as zero-incident airline security, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying or seeking your vote. Or, probably, both. Knowing that we can't reach security perfection in the real world doesn't make us safer, of course, but it will help us curb our more reactionary and counterproductive instincts about the next attack.
Stop the Panic
It's never pleasant to play the numbers game when people's lives are on the line, but there is no other way to dispassionately portray the situation. According to Nate Silver, the math man who runs FiveThirtyEight.com, the odds of a flight being involved in a terrorist incident is currently one in 16.5 million. The odds of being struck by lightning? One in 500,000. So while we shouldn't make light of the Underwear Bomber, we shouldn't be conducting a debate about airline security as if the sky is falling. The firmament is intact, and the system is actually pretty secure. We are not in imminent danger every time we board an aircraft, and we shouldn't act as if we are. Blind panic is exactly what terrorists want.
Use Intelligence Intelligently
The last two terrorist incidents--the 2002 Shoe Bomber on an American Airlines flight from Paris and last month's Underwear Bomber--were literally predictable. U.S. intelligence services knew about both men. In fact, American Airlines barred Shoe Bomber Richard Reid from a flight just a day earlier, and the Underwear Bomber was on a government watch list.
In the years since 9/11, U.S. security services and the Transportation Security Administration have been awash in data about potential threats to the commercial-air system. Yet they have not always shared and correlated the intelligence intelligently. Deputy National Security Director John Brennan even had an alibi for missing the warning signs about the Underwear Bomber. "There is no smoking gun," he said on one of the Sunday talk shows. "There was no single piece of intelligence that said, 'This guy is going to get on a plane.'" Besides the obvious joke--maybe Brennan and his underlings should have been looking for smoking underwear--isn't it the job of Brennan's intelligence services to connect the dots before there is a smoking gun?
Clean House at the TSA
If there has been an epic failure since the Christmas Day attack, it has been the actions and attitude of the TSA, the agency created after 9/11 to run airport and airline security.
The TSA didn't bother to alert all flights over U.S. skies when it learned about the attack, inexplicably choosing to limit disclosure only to pilots operating flights en route from international destinations. It then imposed draconian new rules for passenger behavior on international flights headed to the United States, but never informed flyers of the disruptive new regulations. Then it harassed and subpoenaed at least two of the bloggers who posted the new standards of passenger behavior. It created chaos at security checkpoints around the world by ordering screeners to paw over carry-on bags even though the Underwear Bomber didn't sneak anything aboard in his carry-on bag. And, on Sunday, it issued new rules for flights and citizens from certain international destinations that are being ignored and ridiculed by other nations.
The TSA is bloated and ineffective and, like most bureaucracies, distracted. Its employees are ill trained for the greater task at hand. Its bosses, holdover George W. Bush-era functionaries, have an eight-year record of mishandling passenger data, wasting billions on technology that doesn't work, and, worst of all, treating honest flyers as potential perpetrators who must be policed rather than protected. When President Obama finally gets a nominee for TSA administrator past obstructionist Republicans in the Senate, the new boss needs to clean house, rethink the mission, and restructure how the agency operates.
Revive Trusted Traveler
One of the TSA's most egregious actions in recent years was strangling "trusted traveler," a concept built into the same bill that created the TSA in November 2001. The idea was that a hefty percentage of travelers could be voluntarily profiled in advance, trusted not to be terrorists, and be moved quickly through airport checkpoints. Moreover, the trusted-travel program would be run by private enterprise, thus offering a counterweight to the newly created TSA bureaucracy.
Trusted traveler made sense after 9/11, and it makes even more sense now that the TSA is again creating huge traffic jams at airport-security checkpoints. Crowds of shoeless and distracted travelers waiting obediently in long queues make a tempting target for terrorists. There's little to stop a terrorist from bringing a bomb or firearms into an airport terminal, walking up to the security checkpoint, and attacking the defenseless lines of waiting travelers. A well-run trusted-traveler program would not only cut congestion at security checkpoints, thus eliminating a target for terrorists, it would permit TSA screeners to pay more attention to potential security risks trying to gain entrance to passenger aircraft.
The Fine Print…
One more way to manage security better: Don't bow before technology. The sudden demand for more "full-body scanners" to replace existing screening systems is not a foolproof solution. There are privacy issues; worries about the radiation some of the machines emit; cost-benefit considerations; and real concerns about the devices' actual effectiveness. And just to throw politics and money into the mix, consider this: Former Bush Administration Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has given many interviews in recent weeks espousing more TSA purchases of the scanners. But Chertoff's consulting firm represents one of the major manufacturers of the scanners, a fact he rarely discloses when he's identified only as the former DHS secretary and a supposed expert on terrorism.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2010 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.