Bomb plot spurs a 'new normal' for flying
Although new airport security measures are in place, some analysts call for a broad rethinking of strategy.
NEWARK, N.J. — Fly the jittery skies.
A week after British intelligence foiled a plot to blow up multiple planes with liquid explosives, security at American airports remains at a heightened level.
Passengers and crews are extra vigilant. Even the slightest disturbance is cause for a security alert. In just one 24-hour period, two planes – one from London to Washington, the other from Fiji to Australia – were diverted for what turned out to be false security alarms.
It's all part of what could be called yet another "new normal" in US aviation.
In the five years since 9/11, the airline industry has implemented a wide range of added security measures, and more are in the works. But many analysts contend the vulnerabilities exposed by the foiled plot require the nation to take a step back and reassess the whole manner in which America's skies are guarded. The reason: The terrorists are what one security expert calls "thinking predators."
"Here we are with a problem five years after 9/11 that will not be solved by more screeners or more technology – the liquid [explosive] problem – and even if it hypothetically were, the terrorists would move to some other form," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition in Radnor, Pa. "We reacted after 9/11. We put a lot of things into motion that are now law, but we never had any kind of meaningful debate about the nature of the problem. We have to do that now."
Security analysts say the new restrictions banning most liquids and gels from carry-on luggage will remain in place indefinitely. Some congressional leaders are calling for the immediate screening of all cargo loaded onto passenger planes and a ban on objects that can't go through explosive detection machines. Officials at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) also announced they plan to expand the training of screeners to spot suspicious behavior. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a new director for its science and technology division, which has been highly criticized by Congress and security experts for its failure to aggressively research new explosive detection technology.
In considering and implementing such security measures, officials have always had the challenge of finding the right balance between technological fixes (such as coming up with machines that can detect liquid explosives) and expanding human resources (such as hiring more screeners and increasing intelligence capabilities). In the wake of the foiled plot, DHS has come under fire for not aggressively researching new and existing technologies. The threat of liquid explosives has been well known since the mid-1990s, when a similar plot was exposed.
"The entire Department of Homeland Security has been inept and inert in finding new technology, some of which already exists. It's on the shelf," says Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
But some security analysts note that even if such liquid explosive-detection technology were available at every airport, it may not have thwarted the British plot because the perpetrators allegedly planned to use liquids that were innocuous in isolation and only lethal when mixed on the plane.
"A well-trained workforce that has instinct, experience ... and good gut is just as, if not more important, than the technology," says Frank Cilluffo, head of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "But it's not an either-or proposition. You need both, and to some extent you're always going to be reactive unless you can get in the minds of the terrorists."
Even critics who say that DHS has been slow in exploiting new technologies point to Congress as a large part of the problem. It gave DHS a huge mandate – in some cases even dictating the exact number of employees it could hire and the specifics of what they were to do.
Then it began cutting funds. For instance, in 2003, the TSA had authority and funds to hire 50,000 screeners. Next year, Congress had authorized only 42,000.
"By Congress making the screening tasks more important, it probably prevented [TSA] from going in the direction most of us think they should have, which is focusing on behavioral profiling, looking for suspicious behavior, the way many Europeans and the Israelis do," says Gregory Treverton, a senior analyst at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif.
This week, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced that the TSA planned to train more of its transportation security officers (TSOs) in psychological profiling and behavioral detection. Currently, a pilot project called SPOT – Screening Passenger Observation Techniques – is under way at a dozen airports. Five hundred behavior detection officers should be in place at airports around the US by the beginning of next year, says TSA spokeswoman Amy Kudwa. The goal is to replace contract workers that check tickets and IDs with trained TSA behavior detection officers. That would be the largest expansion of TSA's role since it was created in 2003, and it will require more money from Congress.
Officers who work the front lines at airports say the change is a good first step, but still not enough. They've recommended that all 43,000 TSOs be trained in behavior detection.
"At the checkpoint, we're already in your face, we're already in your bag. We're on the front line and should be trained the way they are in Israel," says AJ Castilla, a TSO at Boston's Logan Airport. "What TSA is doing is minimal. [The behavior detectors] are not going to be at every checkpoint, so there will be huge holes, plus they're going to be in uniform so the terrorists will know who they are and will research them and avoid them."