The Never-Ending Challenge Of Securing Our Air Transport Sector

We know commercial aviation is an indispensable pillar of the national and global economy and a symbol of freedom. That's why it's been a focus of terrorists for decades before 9/11 and in the years since -- and will be for the foreseeable future.
06/05/2012 07:08 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2012

A 10-year anniversary passed with little fanfare recently: the day the U.S. government assumed responsibility for airport screening after 9/11. I remember this day -- April 29, 2002 -- vividly. I was awake for its entire 24 hours and, with one other colleague, manned a checkpoint at the airport in Baltimore for the four-hour gap (midnight to 4 a.m.) after the last contract screeners were let go and newly minted TSA officers took over. There were no flights during this time, but someone had to watch the checkpoint; our meticulous transition planning overlooked this detail.

Leaving behind how rickety that coverage was -- there was a grumpy Maryland State Trooper nearby, but he didn't seem at all concerned with us or our checkpoint -- it is worthwhile to review the state of aviation security. Consider five news items from just the last few weeks:

Of greatest concern, Al Qaeda is working to enhance its capabilities. It appears to have designed a more potent, more stable and harder-to-find underwear bomb than the one used in 2009. Fortunately, the selected bomber this time was a mole (the disclosure of whose identity is itself an unforgivable breach of security), but as leading national security officials have made clear, terrorists remain attracted to aviation and appear unbowed by our counter-measures.

The best antidote? Better intelligence, so we stop plots well outside the airport or aircraft.

This brings us to the next point: ongoing Congressional fury at what it views as TSA's inability to deploy effective screening technologies. Remember, we screen nearly 2 million people per day at 1,500 checkpoints at more than 450 airports, so we have to improve automation. We can't interview every passenger.

While the recent contention that TSA is incompetent because the equipment hasn't stopped any terrorists is ludicrous on its face -- we have no evidence the equipment has missed a bomb -- the second underwear attempt makes clear that we must keep working to improve our tools.

Do we put toddlers on terrorist watch lists? No, but that was the headline that engulfed TSA a few days ago. While this is not the first mistake of its kind -- Sen. Ted Kennedy was pulled aside for rigorous screening for the same reason -- it is an inevitable byproduct of TSA's still imperfect efforts to ensure known or suspected terrorists do not board commercial aircraft.

While there are many causes of these mishaps -- some people should never be on a list, the name-checking software stops people who aren't on the list, TSA officials on the scene sometimes make misjudgments, etc. -- checking terrorist watch lists is here to stay and is an essential line of defense.

There is increasing concern about missing stocks of Libyan shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. These weapons are comparatively easy to move and to use and could bring down an airplane. Counter measures are daunting: it's impossible to keep track of every device or to close airport perimeters.

Here too we must rely on good intel to identify potential perpetrators, as well as specialized tactics like no-fault buyback programs that the U.S. and other countries administer.

Finally, TSA is wisely working to deploy its resources more effectively. The head of TSA, John Pistole, is promoting a "risk-based" security paradigm that includes a program called PreCheck that vets very-frequent fliers and lets them keep their shoes and coats on when they go through security, allows kids under 12 and seniors older than 75 to keep their shoes on and puts greater reliance on intelligence in general.

Former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley has an equally intriguing and worthwhile idea in his new book: getting rid of the long prohibited items list so screeners are looking for terrorists, bombs, guns and knives not nail clippers, matches and snow globes.

We know commercial aviation is an indispensable pillar of the national and global economy and a symbol of freedom. That's why it's been a focus of terrorists for decades before 9/11 and in the years since -- and will be for the foreseeable future.

The examples above are real and make clear two things: our enemies are not idle, and we must remain vigilant, agile and creative while also respecting Constitutional rights and civil liberties. This is a complex but essential balance to strike. In general, TSA and other security agencies have done so since that first morning in Baltimore, but if either end of the spectrum wilts, we have or will soon lose the battle.

Justin P. Oberman is a Truman Security Fellow. He was employee number three at TSA after 9/11 and consults for clients in the aviation security sector. Justin lives in Chicago and is @justinpoberman on Twitter.