Now that the Administration has fully engaged in evaluating the systems failures, which allowed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian Islamic terrorist, to board a US airliner with a bomb concealed in his underwear, I feel compelled to contribute my insight.
Based on 33 years flying large transport aircraft worldwide for both the US Air Force and a major US airline and concurrently being an aviation security and operations expert, I see the return of many old issues. Following 9/11, the nation came together supporting the concept that intelligence data had not been proactively shared to allow government agencies to meet the threat arrayed against us.
As an established AvSec specialist from well before 9/11, I articulated widely that not only had the intelligence not been shared between government agencies but also with the private sector operators. Had I and my professional colleagues been consulted by the FBI on the data they had acquired, an understanding of airliner flying lessons without the proper background and focused on only flying not landing could only point to one conclusion.
Now an even more prominent indicator and warning has been ignored. In the hilarious 1980 movie Airplane, outlandish aspects and innuendos of airline industry were the satirized. In one vignette responding to the Arabic hijackers of the late 1970s, a young Arabic man is handed his boarding pass as the agent recites his travel data: “one-way ticket, cash, no luggage – here is your ticket Mr.….” In 1980, that was funny; 30 years later it is a sad commentary that both the public and private sector still cannot learn from historic facts.
Next, the universal hew and cry for better technology to find bad things carried by passengers. Items carried by law-abiding people do not automatically make them homicidal. In fact, the 9/11 terrorists did not carry any prohibited items onto the airplanes other then their intent to commit atrocities. Things and items do not kill people, in this case – people kill people.
The focus of our 21st century technology efforts will be better aligned when targeted on detecting questionable people first then ascertaining if bad things are also involved. This does not include profiling racial, religious or ethnic appearances; rather the detection of behavioral traits, and/or analysis of data, which indicates a need for closer surveillance, examination and investigation of individuals. The basic premise is that people who are about to commit a crime will behave differently than someone going for an airplane ride; especially in the case of suicide bombers as they have not previously practiced their crime.
This leaves us with applying technology, behavioral science and intelligence analysis to vet the traveling public. Many travelers today are military members, government employees or federally elected officials who carry US government security clearances well exceeding that of the screeners at the airport.
Most of these folks already have biometric credentials and given proper equipment to read them will positively establish their identity. These known travelers could be directed into a screening-lite line for a much quicker and efficient process. A second group would likely be comprised of the great majority of travelers of whom considerable information is already contained in the reservations computer even if they only travel occasionally. This group gets the current standard screening procedure to include secondary screening should questions be raised. Finally, there will be a small group of whom little is known, points of origin or destination, payment methods, behavioral triggers tripped, or newly integrated watchlist flags. These people need to be thoroughly evaluated, and this is where the best technology comes into play.
Whole Body Imaging (WBI) currently in use and development uses either of two different technologies. Backscatter Passenger Imaging uses low intensity X-ray technology to show items in pockets or concealed on the person. Millimeter Wave Technology involves projecting radio frequency energy over the passenger’s body creating a 3-D image and revealing the smallest concealed item. The images from both systems are rendered unrecognizable, and we certainly have the ability to prevent misuse of the equipment. Indeed both systems have security blocks built in that prevent the recording or storage of an image.
I agree with the President’s remarks of yesterday: “we have to do better, we will do better, and we have to do it quickly. American lives are on the line.”
There are aviation security professionals like myself with many years of operational experience. When this expertise is synergized with government intelligence analysts and airline operators, we will find that the sum of the parts truly exceeds that of the individual parts taken separately.
“Private sector preparedness is not a luxury; it is a cost of doing business in the post-9/11 world. It is ignored at a tremendous potential cost in lives, money, and in national security.” - 9/11 Commission Final Report