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September 11, 2008

Seven Years After 9/11, Fresh Concerns About Airport Security

by Barbara S. Peterson

Verdicts in the 2006 UK "liquids bombers" trial were handed down by a London jury this week, just days before the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. The liquid bomber plot, if successful, could have rivaled 9/11 in its devastation, targeting seven transatlantic flights simultaneously. But only three of the eight men charged in the 2006 plot were convicted of any crime, and the jury didn't find anyone guilty of the most serious charge: conspiracy to attack airliners. The jury apparently did not believe there was enough evidence to support the accusation that they were about to attack planes; in their defense, the accused admitted they were up to something. They testified that they were planning to set off bombs in garbage cans outside Heathrow's Terminal 3--not to board planes with homemade bombs using lethal chemicals disguised as soft drinks.

The prosecutors were apparently stung by the jury's decision, and on Wednesday they announced they would retry the case. But given the impact the foiled terror plot had on the way we travel, prompting all those annoying carry-on liquid rules, it's worth revisiting a question we asked in our September issue that year, too:  "Five years after 9/11, Are We Any Safer?" In our report, in which we teamed with several security experts, we found that aviation security was still lacking in a number of key areas. Among them: the ability to detect explosives. The truth is, technology that can distinguish between dangerous and benign liquids carried by passengers is now available--but it is only being tested at a few airports.

Despite some skepticism about whether the UK bomb plotters could pull off a 9/11-style attack, the details of the case that came out during the trial were alarming: A computer disk belonging to the self-styled leader of the group showed highlighted schedules for flights operated by American Airlines, United Airlines, and Air Canada to cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Toronto during the late summer and early fall of 2006. The computer files contained information on baggage policies, with highly specific information about Heathrow Airport. The bomb making materials discovered at the plotters' hideout were fairly sophisticated, according to Scotland Yard, and the British prosecutors presented expert evidence that these makeshift explosives--using a disposable camera as the detonator--would have been powerful enough to bring down a jumbo jet.

In this case, we know the details because good intelligence led authorities to the plotters. But while slapdash airport security allowed hijackers to board planes on 9/11, intelligence failures and dismissal of early warning signs also gave them the opportunity. It is worth noting on this anniversary that the passenger pre-screening system currently in place is essentially the same one that was in effect on 9/11, not to mention it is still being run by the airlines, which say they don't want the job. The TSA's much delayed plan to modernize the system for flagging potential threats (and finally to clean up old lists that repeatedly target innocent fliers), now known as Secure Flight, is now said to be scheduled for completion in 2009.

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