FBI, CIA to Work Closer With Airports to Prevent Terrorism
Airline Security Strategies - And a Rush to Secure a Seat
The single most effective recommendation by a presidential blue ribbon panel on aviation security is the one that is too secret to talk about in detail.
But it is the reason that Central Intelligence Agency director John Deutch and Federal Bureau of Investigation director Louis Freeh both have seats on the 19-member commission.
In addition to beefing up airport security with updated X-ray machines, bomb-sniffing dogs, and ground crews cleared by the FBI, the commission chaired by Vice President Al Gore is recommending that the US proactively deploy the country's massive intelligence assets to help prevent terrorist attacks before they ever take place.
It won't be easy, security experts say. Particularly in a world where shadowy groups have increasing access to portable antiaircraft missiles, sophisticated explosives, and miniature, remote detonation systems. And experts warn that terrorists in the 21st century will likely expand their arsenals to include chemical, biological, and nuclear materials.
The effort by US law-enforcement and intelligence agencies holds the potential to pay enormous dividends to American security by putting terrorists around the globe on notice that Uncle Sam is watching.
"The one area that will be key is how is the [US] intelligence system going to function so that it can anticipate who is going to do what to you and where," says David Plavin, president of the Airports Council International, a Washington-based group that represents the nation's 550 airports.
"That is the only piece of the system we haven't talked about in great detail, but it is an area where you'd better hope that your folks are working overtime and effectively," he says.
Mr. Plavin says that no airport or airline security system is foolproof. But updated systems deployed at most airports will provide an effective deterrent to terror attacks because the majority of terrorists want to carry out their atrocities with a minimum chance of being caught.
The Gore aviation commission was formed by President Clinton on July 25, a week after TWA Flight 800 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island, N.Y. The incident spawned widespread speculation about a terror attack and raised concerns about the safety of air travel.
As part of its recommendation concerning intelligence efforts, the commission is seeking to ease the flow of sensitive information about possible terror attacks from the spy agencies to aviation security officials. Industry officials applaud the effort.
"Airports and airlines are the front line on security," says Spencer Dickerson of the American Association of Airport Executives. "Sometimes the airport operators were the last to hear about terrorist threats," he says. "If the airport operators were able to get that information earlier I think they would be able to implement security programs in a more effective way."
Other areas identified by the commission include suggested research into possible missile-defense systems for commercial airliners, but airlines have balked at this plan, saying such systems would be far too costly.
The commission is also calling for development of more advanced methods of identifying possible terrorists through profiling techniques. If security officials can safely eliminate the 99.9 percent of innocent passengers, they can better focus security efforts on a handful of potential suspects.
Civil libertarians are concerned that targeting individuals based on physical and background characteristics - rather than evidence of possible wrongdoing - may lead to the widespread violation of passengers' civil rights.
The most controversial recommendation considered by the commission was a plan to require airlines to continually match a passenger and his or her luggage throughout the duration of a trip, including through multiple connecting flights. If a passenger for whatever reason failed to make a connecting flight, ground crews would have to unload that passenger's luggage before the plane could take off.
Aviation industry officials say that a luggage match security system would bring the nation's airports to a standstill, unleashing a domino effect of delayed flights.
The security concern is that a terrorist with a timed bomb in a suitcase might pass through lax security at a foreign airport, take connecting flights into the US, and then deliberately miss his or her last flight. The suitcase with the bomb would remain in the cargo hold. Currently, only a few airlines have the technical capability to know that a passenger has not boarded the same plane holding his or her luggage.
In some international airports, security officials place all checked bags for a flight on the runway near the plane and require passengers to identify their own suitcases. Those suitcases are then loaded onto the plane at the same time that passengers enter the plane. Any remaining bags are removed and searched. Such a system is too time consuming for airports in the US where there are 22,000 flights a day, industry officials say.