It is somewhat ironic that the administration spent part of August hyping aviation security threats. As ever, it has devoted less attention to remedies.
The best experts in the field are former members of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) "Red Team," special agents trained in counterterrorism and fielded to detect security breaches in US airports and airlines until 2001. The team, disbanded in 2001, is speaking out about security problems still unaddressed two years later.
Steve Elson, a former Red Teamer and ex-Navy SEAL, was in the FAA until 1999 and still assesses aviation security. The good news is that flying remains the safest form of transportation; statistically your odds of getting hit are scant. But as Elson points out, anything cheap, easy and quick we can do to improve the odds in our favor is all to the good. The bad news is that security is now no better than it was before Sept. 11, 2001, according to Elson, and is often worse.
With mega-bucks "security" contracts galore, problems at the FAA are now intensified in the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA), in the Department of Homeland Security.
Take, for instance, key personnel at Dulles Airport, where one of the 9/11 jumbo jets, American Airlines Flight 77, was hijacked and crashed into the Pentagon. To the unbiased observer, it might seem that Dulles had security problems.
A history of vulnerabilities at Dulles was already documented. The Civil Aviation Field Office Manager at Dulles until shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, was Mark Randol, who joined the FAA under former President Bush. Randol, who was promoted to his Dulles position after filing grievances over oustings from previous positions, according to Elson, was responsible for a range of airport security, including screening airport employees and assessing security risks.
Elson narrates a colorful backstory about the temperament and capabilities of Dulles' civil aviation security head on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. One of Randol's first moves at Dulles was to reveal confidential proceedings regarding security vulnerabilities.
"Started a war out there," Elson says; "hacked the whole airport off." Enraged airport officials went so far as to arrest an FAA flight standards official who was out on the ramps doing flight standards inspections.
With morale at Dulles suffering even before 9/11, predictably the skyjackers' attacks took an additional toll. According to Elson, Randol left his Dulles position immediately after 9/11 for reasons not publicly clarified.
Randol did not return calls and emails placed directly to him for comment. A voice mail message left for Randol was returned by TSA spokesman Nico Melendez, who stated that, "Since that was under the FAA, and we didn't even exist at the time, Mr. Randol is not going to answer these questions. He's under no responsibility to answer these." Melendez continued, "It's obviously an issue that they [the FAA] had their hands around at the time." He added, "That was an FAA operation at the time. It would be inappropriate for the TSA to comment or even to speculate about what happened" at Dulles on Sept. 11 under the FAA.
However, questions put to the Department of Transportation (DOT) are referred back to the TSA. As another Department of Transportation representative said, "A lot of the people who would have answers to questions about what happened before Sept 11 are now at the TSA." She adds, "It's something we're all struggling with." Defining agency boundaries confuses even agency personnel.
After leaving Dulles, Randol was given the job of Federal Security Director at Missoula International Airport in Missoula, Mont. He has not testified before Congress. Oddly, the official biography for Randol posted on the TSA web site omits the Dulles position. As Elson sums it up: "Moral: No accountability; no remedies."
Reshuffling appointments rather than repairing security breaches seems to have been deliberate policy. The former head of security at Logan Airport, where two jumbo jets were hijacked, was promoted to a new position in the FAA.
Some new airport Federal Security Directors have interesting backgrounds but lack expertise in aviation security. Many are ex-military or police; several come from public affairs or communications. The new FSD at Pittsburgh was dean of humanities and social sciences at the Naval Academy. The FSD at Jacksonville, Florida, was in the Secret Service and headed a law enforcement training office. Miami Airport's FSD previously administered the FBI office in El Paso. The FSD at Washington-Dulles worked security for Philip Morris. The FSD at the Indianapolis airport was also with the Secret Service, serving in the LBJ, Lady Bird Johnson and Jimmy Carter details.
Among other eyebrow-raisers, the FSD at Greensboro reportedly was removed from the DEA in Houston for interfering in a drug investigation. The Ontario, Calif., airport FSD retired quickly from the FBI after 75 employees filed a joint grievance against him. The FSD at Newark, where one of the planes was hijacked, was the regional manager for the New York area, including Newark, on 9/11. Several new appointees at major airports, including Reagan National, Dulles, Miami and Chicago O'Hare, have already quit.
The former head of FAA security operations, Randol's superior, Lynne Osmus, now heads the FAA's new Internal Security and Hazardous Materials Office.
Elson and I met in person on Capitol Hill, where I accompanied him to some congressional offices where he had dropped off videotapes showing failed tests in airport security. His evident frustration has not stopped him from volunteering, but then, the Red Team's findings were consistently validated. After the team stood down, "the OIG [the department's Office of the Inspector General] began to conduct [its own] undercover testing at the president's request. The OIG itself noted 'an alarmingly high incidence of testing failures' during this interim period while TSA developed its own covert testing program."
Three assessments were conducted in July at Newark Airport, and one at Dulles. These are "lead bag" tests, where screeners are supposed to check under and inside lead bags that block out X-ray machines. The results? "The one at Dulles and the three at Newark all failed; this is July 2003. I dare anybody to say to my face that security's better." Elson states unequivocally that basic tests run on aviation security (reported by USA Today) "ended up being worse than before 9/11."
He adds, "If any of the folks mentioned above take exception to what I write and desire redress, I quote the intemperate words of George W. Bush, 'Bring them on!'" No fan of Bush's much-quoted remark, Elson has a son, 23, in the Navy in Japan. His son-in-law, at the ripe old age of 24, is stationed in Iraq.
On July 4, 2003, a 38-year-old Florida man allegedly carrying a cherry bomb, matches and a four-inch knife on board an Alaska Airlines flight was arrested by federal agents after the carry-on items were spotted by a 13-year-old boy seated next to him. The flight, bound from Seattle to Orlando, was diverted to Tulsa, where the man was arrested. He had reportedly boarded an earlier flight, without passing through screening between flights, in Missoula, Mont.
Enjoy your trip.
Margie Burns is a Texas native who writes from Washington, D.C. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.