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September 10, 2009

Eight Years After 9/11, Security Loopholes Remain

We need smart security that doesn't depend on searching the same innocent
people time and time again as if they were first-time travelers.

Photo: Marc Asnin, Condé Nast Traveler

by Barbara S. Peterson

Two weeks ago, on a marathon trip around the country that took me to ten airports, I suddenly realized that I hadn't removed a plastic bag from my carry-on in months. Not that I wasn't still supposed to, judging from the ubiquitous "3-1-1" signs and the occasional squawks from the loudspeaker. I was just too preoccupied with juggling my shoes, purse, laptop, coat, and other paraphernalia--and I travel light.  

I had had it with this irritating ritual, and I figured screeners would determine that the tiny amounts of shampoo and toothpaste in my carry-on were no threat. And I suppose I was right: Not once did a screener ask me to open my bag and dump out my cosmetics, a humiliation I regrettably had to inflict on scores of travelers during my two-month stint as an airport screener.

Then came news from London last week of a conviction in the case of the accused terrorists whose 2006 plot to bomb transatlantic airliners by using liquid explosives bequeathed us this annoying checkpoint ritual. That was followed by yesterday's foiled hijacking attempt in Mexico involving a crazed preacher who claimed that his juice cans contained explosives (they were filled with sand).

In microcosm, the liquids loopiness encapsulates everything that has gone awry with our response to the breach of airport security that took place on 9/11. For all the money that's been plowed into the TSA (upwards of $40 billion), the charges that it's all just security theater resonate. 

To wit: The TSA, with little fanfare, has been testing new handheld gizmos that are supposed to detect liquid explosives. If they worked as advertised, we'd be able to hang on to our water bottles and bath lotion. 

But one of my former colleagues who still works at a TSA checkpoint at a major airport tells me the real story: It's a farce. "We wave it around and the passenger is really impressed!" he said. "But we know the real story--it doesn't work."

At the root of all this is the impossibility of performing a thorough search on every traveler, nearly all of whom are innocent people just trying to get from one place to another. And many believe that, as in previous cases, we're focusing on the wrong target. 

The would-be Heathrow bombers' plot was still in the planning stages (British investigators had wanted to continue their surveillance of the group but were overruled by their American counterparts, who feared an imminent attack), and there's a lot of doubt over whether they would have been able to succeed. 

I've spoken with several security experts who believe that it would be extremely difficult to mix chemicals smuggled aboard planes in-flight without detection. Of course, as the demented man in Mexico demonstrated this week, someone can terrorize a plane without a real weapon. And the most critical security improvement since 9/11 remains one of the first: the reinforcement of cockpit doors.

Besides, recent history has shown the folly of simply focusing on the details of the last attack. The real terrorists out there are likely on to other things.  

Many loopholes exist in airport security outside the checkpoint:
* Access to secure ramp areas by airport workers, catering trucks, and others
* Cargo that doesn't get screened and is carried in the bellies of airplanes
* Porous airport perimeters that could allow an attack on a departing plane via a shoulder-fired missile

If that last one sounds far-fetched, consider that just a few months ago the feds arrested a group of alleged terrorists in New York who were accused of trying to purchase missiles to attack planes at Stewart International Airport, 60 miles north of the city.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't have the best possible security at checkpoints, but it should be smart security that doesn't depend on searching the same innocent people time and time again as if they were first-time travelers--expending enormous resources that could be better deployed on identifying true threats well before they get near an airport.

Further reading:
* "Liquid Bomb Plot: What Happened" (BBC News, September 7, 2009)
* "British Court Convicts Three in Plot to Blow Up Airliners" (The New York Times, September 7, 2009)
* "Preacher Used Juice Cans to Hijack Mexican Jet" (AFP, September 10, 2009)
* "9/11 families that didn't settle lawsuits hope to expose airline security faults" (The MetroWest Daily News, September 10, 2009)
* "Determined Father Pursues Sept. 11 Lawsuit" (CBS News, September 5, 2009)
* On the Fly: The airline industry


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