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The Theater That Is Homeland Security

July 30, 2007

hamlet8 Mark Frauenfelder from posted a link to an article on yesterday about airline security from the view of an airline pilot. The pilot, David Mackett, the president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, writes scathingly of one possible avenue for determined terrorists to attack an airliner; aircraft on the ramp. The vulnerabilities are really too amazing to have me paraphrase, so I’ll let Mr. Mackett tell the story:

Today, RON (remaining overnight) aircraft are invariably unattended and unlocked all night. Commercial aircraft typically do not have locks in their doors. They are protected by roving airport police patrols and closed circuit cameras. Neither methodology is very robust. A skeleton crew of employees is also on duty who may see something suspicious, but most have gone home. Jetway doors prevent access from the terminal but the exterior aircraft doors are unlocked to anyone who pushes a stairway up to them.

There have been numerous breaches of airport perimeters (see, How Safe Are You?, Airport Perimeter Security), often by people who weren’t even trying. At least one Al Qaeda sympathizer employed as a catering truck driver was arrested after driving onto airports for months, gathering intelligence.

Almost six years after 9/11, it is inexcusable that — in an environment where TSA misses more than 90% of weapons, RON aircraft are not secured, and ground employees are not screened — fewer than 2% of our airliners have a team of armed pilots aboard, fewer than 5% have air marshals, and the flight attendants have no mandatory tactical or behavioral assessment training. $24 billion dollars later, we are not materially safer, except in the areas of intelligence that prevent an attack from getting to an airport. Once at the airport, there is little reason to believe the attack won’t succeed.

I know I’ve gotten pretty far afield of your topic, but I want to give you the sense that RON aircraft are just one small piece of a multilayered security system wherein every layer leaks like a sieve. The problem is much, much bigger than any single element.

In the end, we should be starting with defending the smallest spaces — the cockpits and cargo compartments, and working outward to the limits of our resources; instead of starting with the airport perimeter and working inward, ignoring the actual defense of those spaces that are actually the terrorist targets. And we should be using the resources already in place to the greatest extent possible, instead of trying to bring new, untried methods into play, then waiting to find out they don’t work nearly as well in reality as they do on paper.

…Wow. As Mr. Mackett says, this is just one small piece of the puzzle, and frankly? Airline security, in total, is just one small piece of the whole security puzzle. Yet we continue to pour good money after good money into overwrought schemes to stop the last terrorist plot. As we’ve said before, Technology is Not a Plan, it is a means to an end. An end that Mr. Mackett believes hasn’t been planned for. Through traditional policing and implementing simple solutions to mitigate threats, as we discussed here, one can take away the easy threats. As noted by NRC commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr., “[T]errorists have looked for relatively simple ways to cause massive death and damage.” Shouldn’t that be where we’re looking to reduce our risk?

The title of this post comes from a great term that I’ve heard bandied about lately – security theater. Security theater is when security measures have been put into place that do little except make folks believe that something has been done. Better than nothing at all, is what they say. The fact of the matter, though, is that security theater taxes our already overstressed security staffs and security budgets. In public health, plans to distribute surgical masks to the public are such theater. They most likely will impart no benefit to the wearer, but will make everyone feel better, or safer, about the situation. The problem, though, is that someone has to buy all of those masks, and draw up a plan, and store the masks and prepare to distribute them. That time and money could much more effectively be spent on surveillance and the resulting early warning that will do so much more in an outbreak situation. Security theater makes for good sound bites and news clips, so we continue to engage in it – drawing down valuable resources and perpetrating the lie that we’re safe.

Photo credit: murphsplace


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