When hijackers commandeered four U.S. aircraft on September 11, 2001, lawmakers moved with the utmost urgency to tighten security at the nation's 429 commercial airports. Alas, urgency rarely inspires sound policy.
Congress spent millions of dollars to hire and train a security workforce to prevent all manner of dangerous weapons -- from guns and bombs to penknives and nail clippers -- from finding their way onto commercial flights. It centralized operations under the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which has resisted calls to fund research and development into security technologies. Even as the TSA sought to soothe public anxiety by rolling out an army of security screeners, wags punned that the acronym stood for "Thousands Standing Around." Finally, lawmakers took concrete, targeted steps to prevent another catastrophic hijacking -- strengthening cockpit doors, arming pilots, and putting air marshals on many flights.
Today, the skies are safer, but that's probably as much due to heightened public awareness as it is to any new policy. Remember that the last notorious case of post-9/11 airline terrorism involved would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, whose strange mid-flight doings with matches over the Atlantic Ocean were noticed and thwarted by alert passengers. It's still far from certain that efforts under way to improve airport and airline security are doing a markedly better job or are even well-conceived.
"We're throwing money and people at problems instead of doing a risk-analysis approach," says Representative John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, which oversees air security. Cockpit doors and air marshals are protection against an armed takeover of an aircraft, but "the rest is all pretty much cosmetic," Mica says.
Two-and-a-half years after the fall of the Twin Towers, gaping holes remain in America's aviation system. Passengers are still screened using 1950s' x-ray technology, and inspection of carry-on baggage is based on 1970s' CAT-scan gear. Both remain subject to a high rate of human failure. In April, a report commissioned by the TSA to evaluate airport-passenger screening came to the alarming conclusion that federal and private screeners are performing equally poorly -- though details on what they're letting through remain classified. Bomb-detection equipment isn't widely deployed and has a spotty track record. And security is lacking or even nonexistent at smaller, noncommercial airports.
Then again, passengers and bags aren't even the biggest threat. Tons of cargo are loaded onto commercial passenger flights with virtually no scrutiny. A "trusted sender" program designed to weed out suspicious packages at the source relies on the self-interest of shipping companies, but it doesn't mandate any serious requirements. Nor would such mandates necessarily work: The sheer volume of cargo is overwhelming.
More recently, as incidents in Iraq and Kenya have shown, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles are a real danger. Although experts argue over this threat's immediacy in the U.S., "it's only a matter of time before they take down an aircraft," Mica says. The U.S. is buying such missiles on the black market and everywhere else it can. But it's rounding up old, Soviet-era, low-tech weapons.
The bigger threat comes from China, which is producing and selling sophisticated, next-generation shoulder-launched rockets that can better home in on a moving jet. Now lawmakers are mulling whether to equip passenger planes with missile-defense systems. The proposal would cost billions and take years. Is this an appropriate response?
Legislators have one way to get at all these threats, and more. But it can't happen at the airport. They must take action at the border, where terrorists are slipping past the nation's defenses. Indeed, Congress is beginning to recognize that some of its early aviation-centered security measures, however well-intentioned, were misguided. It's in the process of dismantling some of the programs created in the legislative frenzy after September 11. The federal airport-security screener force, once 75,000 workers strong, is down to 45,000. Come November, airports will be able to opt out of the federal program altogether and use private screeners.
Congress has told the TSA to focus on technological solutions and is supplying it with a $150 million research and development budget. Airports are rolling out explosive-detection equipment and replacing the less-effective, far more costly trace detectors, which take several people to operate.
Just as important, explosives detection is becoming a more integral part of baggage handling at airports. Only 14 airport baggage systems now put luggage directly through an explosives detector. The rest rely on high-paid federal screeners to hoist luggage through the machines, then return the bags to the cargo belt -- or even to the passenger. It's a process that creates a false sense of security and results in high absenteeism to boot: On any given day, 10% to 15% of the federal screener workforce is out because of injury.
At least lawmakers are starting to think bigger about defending against terrorism. A plan to build a "virtual border" to screen all foreign visitors to the U.S. is moving forward, and immigration oversight is being beefed up. But a system will take years to put in place, and deployment of explosive-detection technology has been excruciatingly slow in many airports.
CHANGE THE FOCUS.
In the meantime, lawmakers need to avoid the temptation to react without taking in the big picture. September 11 led the government to put locks on cockpit doors. Richard Reid's makeshift shoe bomb made metal-shanked Rockports an airport faux pas. Now most passengers take off their shoes and run them through the screeners separately. Fine. But have such measures improved airport safety? "Unfortunately, what we'll probably have is more terrorist events driving the manner in which we progress on putting new systems in place," Mica says.
After Libyan terrorists blew up a Boeing 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, it took the British government seven years and $4 billion to secure 38 of its 41 airports. Congress could improve on that record. Instead of trying to build an infallible system with a series of knee-jerk programs -- a mission that's at worst impossible, at best fiscally naive -- lawmakers must focus on what can be done most effectively. Three years ago, Americans feared anthrax and box cutters. Today it's surface-to-air missiles. Tomorrow, the terrorists will think of something else, and Congress, the TSA, and other regulators will have to go back to the drawing board.
There's a better way. Instead of trying to protect against all manner of weapons both real and imagined, lawmakers should be concentrating on the terrorists themselves -- keeping them out of the country and off the planes. America's borders, not its airports, should be the front line in the war on terrorism.
Commentary by Lorraine Woellert in Washington
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht