The Christmas Day attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 brought our minds sharply back to the threat our nation faces on a daily basis from terrorist organizations and financiers.
In 2003, then-Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, commenting on new Al-Qaeda threats to conduct a series of homicide hijackings of U.S. airplanes, remarked that airline passengers were much more secure than they were before September 11th. However, he conceded that "it will be several years until we get the kind of robust system that we need" to protect the flying public.
Seven years and more than $40 billion later we face the same threat and similar security breaches. This attempted bombing proves that our airplanes are nearly as vulnerable as they were on September 11th.
What is worrisome is that real systemic changes have not occurred. Political correctness still rules, while passengers remain at risk. On Christmas Day, we were faced with a terrorist who made his way onto an airplane headed for the U.S. How many others like him are boarding planes heading to the U.S. right now?
The U.S. is the world's best when it comes to air safety and investigating airline accidents and mishaps. But it is performing rather poorly in trying to prevent terrorist attacks. It must adopt a proactive security system that would save citizens' lives, as well as protect infrastructure. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found over 70% of Americans would support profiling passengers who fit the profile of terrorists based on their age, ethnicity or gender, subjecting them to special, more intensive security checks before boarding U.S. flights (USA Today, January 13, 2010).
The U.S. government is increasingly relying on the latest technological innovations while ignoring the obvious: machines are necessary but machines alone do not allow for good screening. The most advanced machines can and should be fully utilized to support the profiling of passengers by educated, well-trained and properly paid personnel.
Our current screening methods - in a post September 11th world - defers to a mistaken notion of political correctness, such as not requesting passengers' place of birth, for fear of "profiling." To my knowledge, the airlines do not cross check the travelers' travel documents against Interpol's database, which includes some 13 million lost and stolen passports. Airline and airport security staffs are not allowed to ask for pertinent details and are instructed not to question passengers' background.
With new threats hindering international travel, it is difficult to argue that security agents should not pay special attention to passengers born in countries where radical Islam is rife, even those who emigrated and obtained new passports. The latest news from Yemen calls for heightened scrutiny of passengers who were born in the Balkans and Chechnya.
The effectiveness of sophisticated screening devices not only depends upon the information they are fed, but also upon the expertise and training of those operating them. U.S. airlines carry about 1.5 billion pieces of baggage each year. In 2005, 15-35% triggered a false alarm during screening. The quality of follow-up checks depends entirely on the screeners. If security agents at New York's JFK airport passed background checks that did not reveal their criminal record, how reliable is the service we are getting from the TSA?
Israel's El Al Airlines is thought to have the best security in the air carrier industry, developed during five decades of dealing with a constant, growing and changing threat. Instead of adopting what El Al has been doing successfully for years, the U.S. has been reinventing the wheel - not for the better. The secret of El Al's success is not only in the technology it uses; it is the quality of security agents it employs and the methods they use. Each employee is carefully screened, thoroughly trained, has frequents breaks to keep him/her alert, tested often, and well paid. The human factor makes the difference.
In addition, the U.S. can adopt new methods of in-flight passenger identification, such as a system implemented in some Indian cities. Upon check-in, passengers receive a boarding card containing a digital photo taken of them at the counter. Flight attendants are given a copy of each passenger 's boarding card to ensure that travelers only fly to their scheduled destination.
With new Al-Qaeda threats to our airlines and passengers, now is the time for the Homeland Security Department to discard political correctness and do the right thing: adopt the best existing profiling methods before another disaster occurs.