What’s Wrong With Transportation Security?
R. William Johnstone takes a different view of what went wrong with aviation security on 9/11. Instead of blaming intelligence failures that did not “connect the dots” in the months before the attack, Johnstone fingers failures of the security system in place that day. “That’s my opinion,” he says. “It isn’t necessarily a majority opinion.”
Nevertheless, Johnstone’s credentials suggest that his opinion is worth considering. A former Congressional staffer, he served on the transportation security staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, otherwise known as the 9/11 Commission. He is also author of “9/11 and the Future of Transportation Security” (published by Praeger Security International, Westport, Conn., and London, 2006), which chronicles his conclusions about what happened inside the aviation security system in the years, months and days leading up to 9/11. He believes his conclusions can help raise the security baseline in the transportation sector enough to begin to deal with the challenges of 21st century terrorism.
Recently Johnstone discussed his ideas with Government Security magazine.
GS: Why do you contend that 9/11 was a systemic failure rather than an intelligence failure?
Johnstone: The aviation security system in place on 9/11 actually identified 10 of the 19 hijackers, including Mohamed Atta, the leader.
Seven of the 19 hijackers were identified by a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) system called CAPPS (Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System). CAPPS’ random selection feature called out Atta. Two other hijackers raised suspicion by their behavior and were selected for extra security attention by an airline employee working at the ticket counter.
Two more hijackers literally freaked out when a ticketing agent asked if they had packed their own bags. With better security training of airline personnel, they almost certainly would have been selected for extra scrutiny. Instead, the agent helped them answer the questions and let them into the system.
Isn’t it amazing that the security system in place that day picked out all these people?
GS: Were there any clues that would have tied the hijackers together?
Johnstone: Could have been. Other study groups — not the 9/11 Commission — were able to tie together, I think, 17 of the 19 using real time communications and intelligence.
But that’s not my point. I’m talking about what the systems in place that day could have done without the help of intelligence. For example, one of the big failures that day was with CAPPS.
GS: But didn’t you just say that CAPPS picked out 10 of the 19 hijackers?
Johnstone: Yes, but the CAPPS system had been changed several years before. The Gore Commission, which investigated the crash of TWA Flight 800 in July 1996, recommended focusing CAPPS only on the checked baggage of selectees.
While other study groups had recommended searching CAPPS selectees and their carry-on bags, the Gore Commission focused the system entirely on explosives in the belly of the plane. As a result, CAPPS policy required searching the checked baggage of a selectee, but not the selectee and not his or her carry-on luggage.
GS: Are you saying that when CAPPS selected 10 of the hijackers on 9/11 they were not searched; and that if they had been searched, security officers would likely have found the box-cutters?
Johnstone: The selectees and their carry-on bags received the standard search at the checkpoints, but nothing more. Beyond that, however, another systemic flaw came into play. On 9/11, the checkpoint operations guide approved by the FAA and used by the airlines to screen passengers placed box-cutters in a special category. No one could carry box-cutters into the main part of the plane. But they could be checked with baggage. If an individual carried no baggage, the screeners would confiscate the box-cutters.
GS: So why weren’t the box-cutters taken from the hijackers?
Johnstone: This is where it gets murky. The 9/11 Commission didn’t believe the hijackers used box-cutters. That is the term that a few people on the hijacked planes used to describe the weapons when calling relatives on cell phones.
The Commission believed that the hijackers carried knives with blades shorter than four inches. The checkpoint operations guide expressly permitted short-bladed knives to be carried onto the plane. That’s what the Commission believed the hijackers used — short- bladed knives. The reason is because the FBI identified the purchase of such knives by the hijackers and they found short bladed knives in the wreckage of Flight 93, the only plane that didn’t disintegrate upon impact. Many small, important things like this accumulated and caused the system to fail.
GS: You seem to be saying that the system almost worked.
Johnstone: Of course, no one knows for sure. But we do know that Atta and the leaders of the plot were conservative and skittish. We also know that Atta and the hijacker pilot of Flight 175 had a cell phone conversation while in Boston, just before they boarded their flights. It is strongly suspected that it was a final sign-off.
What might have happened if Atta had been shaken down in Maine? What if one or two other hijackers had been hassled about a short-bladed knife? What if the two hijackers that couldn’t answer questions about their baggage had been turned over to security?
One wonders whether Atta, learning of this from other members of the team, might have suspected that the plot had been discovered and pulled the plug during that final sign-off call.
GS: Are you suggesting that the system should have required better screeners? Or that someone was derelict?
Johnstone: No. 9/11 isn’t much about dereliction of duty or malfeasance. Everyone knew that the minimum wage security work force was no good. The Government Accountability Office had been documenting that for years. The problem had been tolerated for years. So you can’t blame the screeners. In fact, the higher quality work force today does not do a whole lot better.
The idea here is that the system operated at a low level because we tolerated all the things that made it operate at a low level.
GS: Surely, we have raised the baseline in the years since 9/11.
Johnstone: In my view, we haven’t progressed very far since 9/11. We still have a reactive and incident-driven system that, by and large, continues to fight the last war. We did see a big jump in attention related to transit security after the bombings in Madrid and after London. But still nothing has changed too much here.
GS: Well, isn’t New York City installing a video system in the subways?
Johnstone: Let’s talk about that. New York City illustrates one of the fundamental policy level questions we have to answer if we are to make progress in transportation security. Who is in charge? Who makes the final decisions?
MTA in New York has received far more funding for transit security than any other transit system in the country — and rightly so. Still, we’re only talking about a few hundred million dollars, compared to the billions spent on aviation security checkpoints alone.
Even so, as of last summer, New York had spent little more than 5 percent of the available funds.
GS: What’s behind that?
Johnstone: According to city officials, they had been deluged with offers of technologies that would fix their security problems, but there was no place to go to get those solutions validated. Officials point to an absence of leadership by the federal government.
Officials say that it had been unclear to them for years as to who made the final decisions: TSA or the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). That’s important, especially in terms of the small amounts of money allocated to transit security. Transit authorities need to be confident that they are spending money on agreed-upon solutions. They cannot afford to find out in 6 months that a new set of regulations calling for different technical solutions means that the authorities won’t be reimbursed by federal funds.
In fact, early last year, New York City transit official grew so frustrated that they asked the U.S. Army to become the city’s security contractor. For obvious reasons, that didn’t pan out.
You are right, though, that New York is installing surveillance cameras. At this point, the city has signed a deal with Lockheed Martin. Part of the program even follows TSA direction, which wasn’t that helpful, although it did say that more surveillance cameras would be good.
GS: You mentioned fundamental policy questions that must be answered before transportation security is to make progress.
Johnstone: Yes. The first question is illustrated by New York’s dilemma: Who is in charge? Had that question been answered four years ago, New York City would have a much better transit security system in place today.
The other two questions to ask: what are the priorities and who pays the bills?
It’s important to remember that these are policy questions. A screener cannot set priorities and determine how fast or slow individuals must be processed at checkpoints. That’s a policy matter that involves setting priorities. How do we reconcile the convenience and privacy of the traveling public with security?
Once those kinds of questions have been decided, policy makers must decide who will pay to execute the policy. That is clearly a question for the executive and legislative branches to deal with.
These three questions also provide a common thread that helps us to see why we are not doing better at transportation security, despite the vast increase in attention. Almost any security problem can be tied to the failure to answer one of these policy questions.
Why isn’t mass transit security in New York City better? Because no one has answered the policy question about who is in charge. Why don’t we have inline explosives screening in airport baggage handling systems? Because no one has answered the question of who will pay for it. Why don’t we do a better job of screening cargo containers at ports? Because policy makers have apparently not concluded that seaports have a priority as great as airports.
GS: Do they?
Johnstone: That is perhaps the biggest question of all, and the reason that the principal transportation security-related recommendation of the 9/11 Commission was that the federal government develop a national strategy that would “set risk-based priorities for defending” transportation systems. And while the Department of Homeland Security did finally produce such a document, the 9/11 commissioners reported in December of 2005 that it “lacks the necessary detail to make it an effective management tool,” and thus we are continuing to fail at identifying, let alone, securing, the transportation and other national assets most at risk.