September 11 revisited - three years later
Are we safer? Are we safe?
Every time we travel, every time we take our laptops out of
their carry bags to be X-rayed separately, and remove our
shoes, we're experiencing the aftermath
But are we now safer -
and are we now sufficiently safe? Or is our security a
feel-good inconvenience rather than an effective process?
None of us need to be reminded
of the horror of 9/11, and neither do we need to be persuaded of
the imperative need to prevent further acts of terrorism against our
nation's air transportation system.
But as we spend billions of
dollars on new security measures and accept the billions of
wasted extra travel hours
associated with them, it is fair to seek accountability - to ensure we're spending the money
and sacrificing our freedoms
wisely and getting the security we're promised in return.
NOTE : This article was
written on 9/10/2004. Almost nothing has changed in the last
Two Simple Tests
Everything we have done to
improve the security of our nation's air transportation system since
9/11 should be measured against two simple tests - has it made
us safer than before, and has it made us now sufficiently safe.
Note that 'sufficiently
safe' is very different to 'absolutely 100% safe'.
Achieving 100% safety is probably impossible in a free society,
and even in a completely controlled society, would only come at
great financial cost.
extra security measures should also be tested the same way -
will they make us safer, and will they make us sufficiently safe.
The Overriding Lesson of 9/11 -
Protect the Cockpit
The events on the four
planes hijacked on 9/11 can be distilled into one overriding
is a simple lesson, so simple in fact that it was learned by the passengers on the fourth plane, and
implementing this is possible at minimal cost.
Prior to 9/11, it was
official policy to cooperate with hijackers, and to do anything
they asked. Official policy did not countenance that
hijackers might choose to fly a plane into a building but
instead revolved around doing anything necessary to get the
plane on the ground and then to negotiate or storm the plane to
resolve the situation.
So the hijackers on all four planes needed nothing
more special than short box-cutter type knives and possibly some
tear gas to force their way into insecure cockpits, overpower
pilots trapped by their harnesses, and take over the planes,
while behind them in the passenger compartment, the few
passengers on board uncertainly and passively waited and worried.
The passengers on
the fourth plane found out when calling people on the ground
about the fate of the earlier planes, put two and two together,
and bravely fought to retake their plane. They failed to
regain control of the plane, but succeeded in preventing it being used as a missile against another ground target.
This most important lesson of 9/11 has
been obscured in the horror of the tragedy, and by the massive
over-reaction that followed. The lesson is simply this :
Don't allow terrorists to take control of a plane. Defend
the cockpit at all costs.
How well have we responded to this
Amazingly, prior to 9/11,
neither pilots nor airlines wanted strong cockpit doors.
Pilots worried about getting trapped in the cockpit after a
crash, and airlines worried about the extra cost and weight.
The FAA over-rode the
objections of pilots and airlines, and insisted on stronger
cockpit doors. However, it also gave the airlines 19
months to fit the doors to their planes!
This was done, as directed,
although critics would point out the new strengthened doors,
while bullet proof and very expensive (costing the better part
of $50,000 each), are not actually person proof - a 225 lb man,
running into the door at 5.5mph, would create enough impact to
collapse the door.
Needless to say, there is
more danger from terrorists simply using their natural strength
to break into the cockpit than there is from terrorists using
weapons to try and shoot through the cockpit door.
Three other measures have
also been partially implemented to add to the
integrity of the cockpit.
The first of these is
allowing pilots to carry pistols. Unfortunately, the TSA
has opposed this program and so has made it as difficult as
possible for pilots to be approved to carry a pistol (anecdotal
evidence suggests it is much easier for a person to become a
federal air marshal and carry a pistol into the passenger
compartment on a plane than it is for a pilot to keep a pistol
in a secure lockbox in the cockpit).
Very few pilots have been
approved to carry a pistol.
The second measure has been
to revive the federal air marshal program. An unknown
and secret number of thousands of marshals were hired and quickly
trained, and now plain clothes marshals can sometimes be found on
domestic flights within the US (but almost
never on international flights).
If you're on a larger sized
flies in or out of New York or Washington DC, there's perhaps
a 50% chance that two air marshals might be on your flight (look
for two men or women wearing business attire on aisle seats in
But if you're on a
short-haul flight between a couple of secondary cities, and on a
small plane, there's almost no chance any of your fellow
passengers will be air marshals.
Two separate laws - passed
in Nov 2001 and Nov 2002 - require the TSA to establish training
guidelines for cabin crew to help them respond to and act
against potential threats to flight safety posed by terrorist
Unfortunately, neither piece
of legislation specifies any time limits for such measures to be
implemented, and so this issue is languishing, largely neglected
(but not by flight attendants who are concerned that with the
pilots now locked in the cockpit, they are increasingly the only
resource to control passengers - be they simply unruly and
drunk, or terrorists).
However, on the positive
side, it seems likely that if there is a problem in the cabin,
passengers may enthusiastically volunteer to help establish
This passenger assistance is the one thing that
requires no government intervention. And it seems to be
the only thing that has positively occurred.
For a detailed discussion of
cockpit and passenger cabin vulnerabilities, see my earlier two part article,
Protecting Planes Against Terrorist Attack.
Has cockpit security become
safer since 9/11? Yes.
Is it safe enough? No.
Four Other Vulnerabilities
The government and airlines
between them are spending many billions of dollars extra on
aviation security now than they were prior to 9/11. But a
chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the security
chain that protects our nation's air travel system seems to
comprise almost exclusively weak links, billions of dollars
Here are four of the most
Although you now have to
take your shoes off before going through the metal detectors at
the airport, and although they are set so sensitive that
underwires in bras and small belt buckles will trigger an alarm,
none of these metal detectors are of any use at all in detecting
explosives, because explosives are not made of metal.
There is nothing to prevent
a terrorist from carrying plastic explosive
through a metal detector and onto a plane, wrapped around their
person underneath their clothing. They wouldn't even need
to bring a lot on board with them - a single pound of plastic
explosive - no bigger in size than a couple of bars of soap - is
enough to destroy a plane.
Detonators could be
disguised in common electronic gadgets and smuggled through the
X-ray scanner. Indeed, some insiders suggest that as many
as 20% of illegal guns and knives slip through the X-ray
machines unnoticed, so disguised detonators are likely to
pass through with no problems at all.
Two Russian passenger jets
crashed in August 2004 as a result of onboard explosions.
One theory suggests suicide bombers came onboard with
hidden explosives, went into passenger toilets, and then
detonated their bombs.
We in the US have absolutely
no protection against such actions at present. Explosive
sniffing detector technology does exist, and is currently being
tested at five airports, but has not been deployed across the
Are we safer now from
terrorists bringing explosives on planes? Not measurably.
Are we safe enough? No.
Remarkably, our checked
luggage is now subject to closer scrutiny for possible explosive
devices than we are, ourselves.
However, this was a long
time coming, and marks the culmination of a repeatedly delayed
program that was first developed in response to the terrorist
bombing of Pan Am flight 104, way back in 1988.
It took 15 years to respond
to this vulnerability, but even now, there remains a massive
loophole. While passenger luggage gets varying degrees of
inspection, commercial freight usually gets none. Many passenger
flights also carry commercial freight on them.
Terrorists can simply send
their bombs onto passenger planes via commercial air freight.
In partial response, the government introduced 'known shipper' requirements that
make it harder - but, alas, far from impossible - for a person to anonymously ship a bomb
via air freight.
Are we safer now from
terrorists sending bombs via commercial airfreight? Not
Are we safe enough? No.
We as passengers have to
endure long lines and pointless so-called security screening
before we get onto a plane. Now look out your plane's window at all
the people on the tarmac around it.
What sort of screening have
they had to undergo?
The food and drink that is
loaded onto your plane - do you really think every can of soda
has been passed through an Xray machine to see if there is
a bomb hidden inside it?
While in theory aviation workers
who access secured areas have to undergo background checks before being
hired, and then security screening before being allowed to
access the secure areas of an airport, the background checks are
seldom very detailed, and security screening of 'insiders' is
often minimal. While waiting in line to go through
security, I've watched people wearing TSA uniforms walk up, go
through the metal detector, set the alarms off, then keep on
going, while their co-workers just smile and wave them on.
Another theory about the two
Russian planes that crashed in August 2004 is the bombs were
placed on the outside of the planes by airport workers.
In the UK, also in August, a
journalist managed to get employment at a major airport as part
of the ground crew after providing fake background information, smuggled a pretend bomb through employee
security screening, and had an accomplice photograph him placing
it inside an airplane by its fuel tank.
We are similarly vulnerable
in the US to such 'insider' actions.
Are we safer now from
terrorists getting access to a plane while masquerading as
airport employees of some type? Not substantially.
Are we safe enough? No.
The threat posed to our
commercial aviation system by missiles is possibly the gravest
of all threats for three reasons :
Missiles are cheap, portable,
readily available on the black market, and easy to operate
Missile countermeasures (none
of which are currently deployed on regular passenger planes)
are not 100% effective and can not be relied upon to
protect slow and not very maneuverable passenger planes
Missiles can be quickly
launched from a large area around the flight paths in and
out of airports - as much as 150 square miles, often
in built up city areas - making it impossible to
secure the areas under vulnerable parts of flight paths
Protecting against SAM
attack is perhaps the most difficult vulnerability of all to
resolve. And, to date, no counter-measures of any kind
have been deployed. My article on
the unresolved air security threat discusses these problems
in greater detail.
Are we safer now from SAM
attack against planes? No.
Are we safe enough? No.
Other vulnerabilities - and
conflicting demands on our dollars
The Transportation Security
Administration (TSA) is tasked with protecting not just our
planes but also all other forms of transport in the US.
To date, their actions have
been focused almost exclusively on aviation. A plane
carries 50-300 people. Now look at one of the new cruise
ships, carrying 3000 or more passengers, plus another 1000 or
more crew. A tempting terror target?
Terrorism in other countries
is often much more mundane. Car bombs on street corners
and suicide bombers in shopping centers - we have nothing to
protect against these acts, and probably never will. If
Israel can't protect against such acts of terrorism, how can we?
One more thing to consider -
the cost per life saved when spending money on counter-terrorism
efforts is estimated to be ten or even one hundred times higher
than the cost per life saved if the same funds were invested
into simple road safety or preventative healthcare programs.
We don't have unlimited
funds, and our approach to security necessarily requires
compromises. This article doesn't question the need to
compromise, but does question whether our current compromises
and priorities are correctly set.
Is the System Working - Three
Years of Safety
In the Conan Doyle story
'The Adventure of Silver Blaze', Sherlock Holmes solves the case
of a stolen horse with the clue of a watchdog who didn't
bark. Sometimes things that don't occur are as significant
as things that do.
In our case, after 9/11
there have been no successful attempts at disrupting our air
service, and - with the exception of the strange shoe bomber -
no apparent unsuccessful attempts either.
How then to reconcile the
massive remaining vulnerabilities in our aviation system with
the lack of terrorists exploiting them?
Indeed, in a broader sense,
our nation has not suffered any of the anticipated and variously
threatened follow up attacks (and long may we remain so
blessed). All manner of tempting events and targets have
passed free of incident - Superbowls, July 4 and New Year
celebrations, and most recently the Democrat and
Republican Presidential conventions.
Does this mean we're winning
the war on terror? Does this mean our enemy is weaker and
less resolute than we thought?
Where do we draw the line
between infringing on our civil liberties and freedoms and right
to due process on the one hand, and combating terrorism on the
These are important
questions, but not ones which allow for easy or absolute
answers. This article limits itself to reporting the stark
fact that a group of determined terrorists still have ample
opportunity today to cause massive harm to our aviation system.
Our three years free of
terrorist attack -
like the countless years prior to 9/11/2001 - are no
promise of continued safety tomorrow and into the future.
Are we safer now than we were
on 9/11/01? Slightly and selectively.
Are we safe enough? No.
Despite three years and tens
of billions of dollars, our air safety remains massively
vulnerable to terrorist attack, as does most of the rest of our
national transportation system.
We have focused huge amounts
of resource into a minor part of the problem (controlling some
of the items passengers can take on board flights with them)
while leaving vulnerabilities in this area (eg no testing for
explosives on one's person, incomplete cockpit protection
measures, etc) and other areas (eg commercial air freight, SAMs,
I don't think this is good
enough. Do you?
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10 September 2004, last update
28 Nov 2012
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.