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Airport Police May Prove Unprepared For Terrorism In The Terminal

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Airport police patrol the terminal at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2011, the day before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Airport police patrol the terminal at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., on Sept. 10, 2011, the day before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

WASHINGTON -- The video is graphic. Machine-gun toting terrorists emerge from an elevator and move methodically through the busy airport terminal, mowing down travelers, police and everyone else in their way.

"When I show it in my airport security training courses, there are usually only a few people who are familiar with it," says Jeffrey Price, who teaches aviation management at Metropolitan State College of Denver. "[There is] hardly any airport that's prepared to defend against it."

The violent clip, it turns out, is from the controversial "Modern Warfare" video game series. But the fictional scenario -- terrorists attacking airports -- has played out in real life. Terrorist groups have staged assaults on airports across Europe in recent years, including an attack that killed two U.S. airmen in Frankfurt last year, and a suicide bomb attack in Moscow that left dozens dead.

Terrorists haven't ignored U.S. airports, either. On July 4, 2002, a gunman killed two people at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport. More recently, in 2007, federal authorities broke up a plot to blow up fuel tanks at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Terrorists can strike anywhere -- from Times Square to a civil rights march in Spokane, Wash. But despite spending billions of dollars to make air travel safer since Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement agencies are unprepared for a major attack inside an airport, some security experts warn. Complacency, other priorities and lack of funding, they say, have combined to create vulnerability in a place the public assumes is one of the most secure of all.

The main mission of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is to keep weapons and explosives off of airplanes -- a mandate that has led to the rise of full-body scanners, banned liquids, intrusive pat-downs and complaints over profiling.

The job of guarding the terminal, patrolling the airport parking lot and watching the fence around the runways, however, belongs to state and local authorities.

"The federal government doesn't tell you how to do security," says Thomas Kinton, a consultant who was aviation director at Boston's Logan International Airport on 9/11 and is a former head of the Massachusetts Port Authority.

The TSA sets minimum security standards at airports and provides some training to outside security officers from these state and local authorities. "Airport security is a shared responsibility, and airports and airlines are required to adhere to TSA-approved security standards," the TSA said in a statement to HuffPost. "TSA does not employ airport police officers, but works closely with airports to incorporate local law enforcement into an overall TSA-approved security plan."

In other words, Kinton explains, "it is up to each airport" to decide how much security it will provide.

Some of the larger airport authorities, such as the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, have their own specially trained police forces. Many others, though, rely on the state or local law enforcement agencies for airport security.

Many big city police departments view the airport as "just another strategic facility" to protect along with power plants, train stations and sports stadiums, says Rafi Ron, a former head of security at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport who has advised the TSA and airport authorities.

In a time of tight government budgets, such law enforcement has neither the resources nor the motivation, Ron says, to make airports a top priority. Federal spending on passenger and baggage screening and other homeland security measures has soared since 2001, but strapped state and city budgets mean "funding shortages have forced many airports to operate at the minimum local legal threshold," Ron told Congress last year.

As a result, he says, "The so-called tired and weary end up at the airport," with officers viewing the post as just a stop along the way to retirement.

Price, the aviation management professor, also says that -- with a few exceptions like Boston's Logan and the three airports in the New York area -- "many airport police forces are staffed with those waiting to retire, or 'retired-on-active-duty' (known as derisively ROAD) or are the 'problem children' and workers comp cases that have been transferred off the streets to the airport. They are not well equipped nor adequately trained to handle a multi-force active shooter attack."

There are no official statistics on the average age of airport police, or what bearing that may have on job performance. But a Boston Globe report soon after 9/11 found the average age of Massachusetts state troopers assigned to Logan was 50 years, compared to 41 years statewide.

Kinton said several efforts to end the seniority system, by which older law enforcement officers get first dibs on airport jobs, have gone nowhere. "If you want to be better and be the best of the best," he says, "there are better ways to do it."

Robert Raffel, former public safety director at Orlando International Airport, notes that airports tend to attract older police officers. He says airports also try to save money by contracting out some jobs such as guarding exit gates to cheaper, private security firms.

But Raffel insists that if a terrorist is determined and suicidal, "I'm not sure any police organization could respond in a robust manner before they got close to that airplane, I don't care what kind of shape they are in."

Jack Riley, vice president of the National Security Research Division at RAND, rejects the idea that airports are "a dumping ground" for worn-out cops and says the threat is exaggerated. "When you look at terrorist infrastructure incidents across the globe," he says, "terrorists are more likely to attack targets like rail, buses, and public squares than targets like airports."

A House subcommittee hearing last year on airport perimeter security, however, shed light on thousands of security breaches at airports. Airline stowaways, bypassed checkpoints and tarmac drunk drivers have made splashy headlines -- even as a recent report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general said many security breaches are never even reported to the TSA.

The breaches are serious, says Ron. "Think instead of a drunk driver that could have been a suicide bomber with a car full of explosives."

But the headlines tell only part of the story. "We are far less prepared for an active shooter in the terminal than we should be," Price says. "Frankly, if you ask me, that's what Congress should be investigating."

In Europe, where national governments take responsibility for security at most airports, lessons learned a generation ago still carry force.

For instance, travelers passing through Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport, where 16 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in 1985, still see heavily armed police wearing body armor and toting automatic weapons. While similarly equipped police were common at U.S. airports in the days and months following 9/11, today they are a rare sight, and usually only during periods of heightened alert.

"A key line of defense is deterrence," Price has written. "An alert, well-trained, well-equipped police force patrolling the public areas of a terminal building, like they do in Rome, can be a huge deterrent to a suicide bomber."

Ron says specially trained police with the "right background, right level of fitness, right training, right weapon" can make a difference. That is a lesson Israel learned 40 years ago when Lod Airport, now known as Ben Gurion, was targeted by Japanese Red Army terrorists who killed 26 people. It was the first -- and last -- attack on Israel's only international airport.

"One of the lessons learned by Israel at the time is that airport security is just as critical as securing [the airplane]," Ron says. "Are the police departments at U.S. airports providing adequate security? Largely speaking, the answer is no."

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