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Air terrorism: flight or fright.


TERRORISTS AGAIN USED A FOReign port of call to strike at the United States when Pan American Flight 103 was blown out of the Scottish skies and 270 people died. Such attacks against American interests continue overseas; how long will it be before international terrorism is imported to the United States?

Three calls following the Pan Am attack claimed credit in the name of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and Imam Khomeini. The reasons given for the attack were revenge for the American downing of the Iran Air airliner in the Persian Gulf in July 1988 and America's granting of sanctuary and support for Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah of Iran. Later, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death contract against the British author Salman Rushdie for insulting Islam in his book The Satanic Verses. That contract, calling for the crazies of the world to assasinate a citizen of another country, is unprecedented and dramatically changes the nature of the terrorist threat. Will the United States be ready if a similar contract is issued against its domestic air travel?

The United States should take advantage of the lack of any current domestic terrorist threat by increasing its antiterrorist security now. Because it is the target of choice for international terrorist groups, air travel should receive first priority in improving security.

The security effort should be divided into immediate and long-term programs. Easy, low-cost improvements in domestic air travel security, such as eliminating curbside baggage check-in, should be taken immediately. In many cases curbside check-in baggage bypasses security and is transported directly to the aircraft. Ensuring that every passenger who checks baggage actually boards the aircraft does not keep bombs out of checked luggage. Terrorists have often used unsuspecting passengers to carry bombs aboard aircraft (Air India flight in June 1985; El Al flight in April 1986; and possibly Pan Am flight in December 1988).

Another low-cost improvement would be to return to the one carry-on bag per passenger rule. Such a rule would remove considerable pressure from check-in security personnel and permit a more thorough inspection of passengers and their carry-on bags.

Passengers should be prohibited from placing electronic appliances, such as radios and cassette players, in checked baggage. An X-ray image of those appliances shows the same profile (batteries, wires, cords, metal parts) as that of bomb components. The new plastic explosives, transparent to X-rays, cannot be detected using current procedures. Security personnel seeing the X-ray image of a cassette player in checked baggage are faced with pulling the bag off the flight or taking a chance that the device is innocent. Electronic devices could be brought aboard in carry-on baggage, thereby allowing direct inspection.

On high-threat routes, during high-threat periods, and when threat information is known, all baggage should be physically inspected. A total inspection program is possible without unacceptable inconvenience or delay to passengers. The El Al Airlines system is often cited as an excellent example of a total baggage inspection program. I can verify, after two recent trips through Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, that the system works. I timed the most recent occasion in February 1989, when I arrived at the airport's departure terminal, as directed, two hours before flight time. After a thorough inspection of all bags, plus a comprehensive questioning by security personnel, I was through security and ready to board after one hour and 40 minutes.

Another simple security technique worth adopting is that of questioning passengers. The questioning can be for all, random, or selected (those that fit a suspect profile) passengers. According to an old security saying, "There's no machine to detect a terrorist or a fool," but questioning passengers can detect both. Terrorists are subject to stress and react accordingly when being interrogated by security professionals. A fool can be doing a favor for a friend or for money, by carrying a package of unknown content aboard an aircraft. Professional questioning can reveal the error of their ways. A well-run program could have the baggage inspection and passenger questioning occur simultaneously.

Security is expensive. Therefore, security should be idea intensive - providing better results with the same resources. The most fertile field for idea gathering is the security work force. The people who implement programs are best suited to suggest improvements. Enticed by rewards, workers could dramatically improve security at little expense or even at a savings. Suggestion programs should be instituted and forcefully implemented.

Long-term security considerations must also be made. A basic security principle is that equipment should be used to augment human capabilities. Reversing that rule is a recipe for failure. People's flexibility allows reaction to changing threat environments, whereas high-tech equipment normally works toward a single purpose.

A case in point is the thermal neutron analysis unit designed to detect plastic explosives like Semtex. The device, conceived in response to the 1986 bombing of an Air India flight, has been three years in development and has cost the government tens of millions of dollars. Six units are scheduled for delivery by January 1990 at a cost ranging from $750,000 to $1 million each.

On April 3, 1989, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that all high-risk airports throughout the world would be required to install the thermal units. Unfortunately, two problems arise: Foreign airports, insisting that the threat is restricted to American carriers, may refuse to install the devices, and unless all (not just high-risk) domestic and foreign airports servicing the United States are equipped with the devices, bombers have only to introduce their deadly cargo at unprotected locations. High-tech equipment will play an essential role in antiterrorist security; however, its limitations must be accepted.

Future emphasis in air travel security programs must be on people. Properly trained, motivated, and supervised personnel with standard equipment can provide a succesful security program. When conducting security surveys, the first request I make is to see the ratio of dollars spent on equipment (initial cost and maintenance) to dollars spent for initial training, subsequent training, and supervision of personnel. As one would expect, equipment costs greatly exceed training and supervision costs. The second question I ask is, "Are all elements of the approved security program being implemented?" There is often a wide disparity between programs as outlined by professional briefers and what is happening on the ground. It is essential that proper implementation of approved programs be verified.

Finally, long-range security efforts should aim to strengthen the igloo-shaped containers used to store checked baggage in aircraft compartments. These plastic containers could be made of materials (such as Kevlar) that offer significant resistance to an exploding device stored inside. Rupturing such reinforced containers would require larger bombs, which would be easier to detect.

THE PROPER MIX OF SECURITY equipment, training, and supervision is necessary for a succesful security program. If security is to improve significantly, more funds and professional expertise are necessary. Airlines cannot be expected to shoulder the entire burden of security responsibility and costs. As Mr. Noel Koch, president of International Security Management, said recently, "The combined might of the United States - its vast military, its far-flung intelligence resources, its political leverage, and its economic muscle - has not been able to keep its citizens from being murdered. Yet, what it cannot do itself, it requires the nation's airlines to do - and condemns them when they fail!" The airlines need help, not just in the form of subsidies but in all aspects of air travel security.

Airport and airline security is currently provided through a variety of organizations, regulations, techniques, and funding. With that arrangement comes tremendous differences in the quality and dependability of air travel security programs. This problem can be solved by giving the FAA responsibility for coordinating all US air travel security and providing that agency with the necessary funding and legal clout. For example, the FAA could organize and conduct all initial and subsequent training for domestic air travel (airport and airline) security personnel and foreign-based US airline security personnel. Responsibility for day-to-day security operations at airports and with airlines would not change. However, those programs would be subject to frequent FAA certification.

Using the considerable resources of other federal agencies, the FAA could also provide background checks for flight line and security-associated employees. Performing such checks is a tall order, as flight line numbers can be more than 5,000 personnel at major airports. Those employees include baggage handlers, catering crews, aircraft cleaning crews, maintenance and servicing personnel, flight crews, and numerous others with legitimate flight line duties. Currently, most such background investigations consist of checking names against local police records for verification.

SECURITY PROFESSIONALS GENERally agree on the tactics and techniques necessary to provide a successful air travel security program. In matters of strategy, however, wide and dramatic differences surface.

On the February 16, 1989, edition of ABC News's Nightline program, I debated the subject of whether to notify the public of airline threats with a previous director of security for El Al Airlines. That subject lies at the heart of how the United States must act to ensure future air travel security.

The position taken by my Israeli colleague is this: "Never tell the public about any air threat.... We have to keep it secret, wait for the terrorist to come, and stop him on the ground.... We don't want to lose the opportunity to halt the terrorist when he comes to fly with the airline." On April 3, and again on April 27, 1989, the US Department of Transportation confirmed that the United States would not publish threat information.

This strategy of keeping threat information secret in the effort to catch terrorists, as opposed to announcing such information in trying to prevent attacks, must be seriously questioned. The fight against terrorism has two main considerations: antiterrorist security and counterterrorist operations. The purpose of antiterrorist security is to prevent attacks. There is no better way to prevent an attack than to inform the planners you are aware of their presence or plans. Counterterrorist operations have the entirely different mission of apprehending or neutralizing terrorists. Combining the two efforts could be a design for disaster. Keeping threat information from people at risk in an attempt to ambush terrorists is, at best, using innocent people for bait. To be acceptable, a program that denies threat information to travelers would need a 100 percent success rate in preventing associated attacks. A single failure (Pan Am Flight 103, for example) can send 270 people to their deaths.

Then there is the question of just how secret the threat information is kept. For example, air travel threat advisories are routinely disseminated to a large select group associated with US and foreign embassies, aviation agencies, airlines, airports, official and contract airport security organizations, and US military command headquarters stationed in the theater. These tens of thousands of individuals, who have a legitimate right to know, certainly tell thousands of family members and friends about the threats. Why not add the relatively few affected travelers to this select group?

Experience shows that publicizing threat information causes prospective attackers to abandon plans. European security agencies follow such a procedure. For example, on January 22, 1989, the British government, via the London Sunday Times, announced uncovering an Irish Republican Army plot to conduct mortar attacks against Buckingham Palace and the House of Parliament. Then, on January 24, 1989, the Zurich police announced increased security to counter a reported group of terrorists carrying Lebanese passports and planning attacks against American and British targets in Switzerland.

The policy of not releasing threat information is creating bitterness and distrust between the traveling public and the government. For example, following the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, the FAA was severely criticized for not notifying air travelers of terrorist warning alerts received months before the bombing. Then, on March 16, the FAA received information about a possible hijacking of an American airliner in Europe. Again, only security authorities, not the traveling public, were notified. The March 16 alert was leaked to the press on March 23, and the cycle of anger and accusations between the public, press, government, and airlines again erupted. The environment of sniping and accusations provided terrorists a significant victory. Is there not a compromise, a common ground that will satisfy all?

Authorities correctly warn that leaking sensitive intelligence places sources in danger and results in the loss of future information. Also, releasing sensitive data concerning terrorists' plans could result in lost opportunities to apprehend the planners.

On the other hand, experience shows that publicly announcing knowledge of terrorist plans causes plans to be canceled. Moreover, there has been little success in using secret threat intelligence to capture terrorists or divert disaster.

The problem is aggravated by the adversarial confrontation between US officials, who insist that threat information be kept secret, and the press, who are committed to digging out and printing everything. Because the situation has been sensationalized, and considering the very large number of insiders properly exposed to classified air travel threat advisories, leaking of that information will continue. Since the Pentagon Papers incident, no agency has been able to stop leaks that have a chance of making headlines.

Leaks can have a devastating effect on antiterrorist security programs. They pressure officials to restrict the number of people receiving threat information, possibly resulting in the denial of critical information to appropriate security personnel. Even worse, leaks of sensitive information cause friction and distrust between intelligence agencies and eventually governments. To protect intelligence sources, agencies and governments then refuse to share terrorist-related intelligence.

A middle ground should be considered. Governments could issue general threat information but hold onto sensitive intelligence details. In the March 16 example, intelligence knew, in addition to the threat, the names of the three suspected terrorists and the types of passports they carried. The government could have issued a public advisory announcing "the presence of a Middle Eastern terrorist in Europe seeking to hijack an American airliner during a period including the Easter holidays." Such an announcement would warn the traveling public and deter the attack. However, it would not reveal the sensitive information that would put intelligence sources at risk or notify the terrorists that information critical to their neutralization was known to authorities. The issue having been desensationalized, insiders would have less motivation to leak the intelligence to the press, and the press would be much more responsive to government requests that any leaked sensitive details not be published or broadcast.

The traveling public has a right to know if it is exposed to life-threatening situations. The government has a right to protect sensitive intelligence. Nothing is gained by the current confrontation between concerned parties. If we are to direct all energies to defeating the increasingly serious terrorist threat, a compromise on the matter of sharing threat information is necessary.

Contrary to popular belief, disclosure of threat information to the general public or specific passengers does not significantly disrupt air travel. An airline spokesperson offered the following reasons why public notifications of threats would harm air travel security and operations:

* Security would be undermined by announcing to the terrorist groups how much the authorities know.

* Public notice could cause copycat threats, magnifying the problem.

* Airlines would suffer passenger cancellations even when the threat was not valid.

Those reasons, however, are faulty. The public can be notified in two ways: through wide public notice of threat information through sharing threat information with applicable travelers only. The first method could be used to deter potential attacks.

The second approach is applicable when authorities, for whatever reason, believe a general announcement is not appropriate. The threat information could be restricted to affected travelers and provided when they buy tickets, after they buy tickets, or when they arrive for departure. That would negate the copycat concern but would allow those in danger a choice. Alerted travelers might reschedule their flights, but all would continue to travel. Over time, any impact would be evenly distributed among the airlines.

The thoughts offered in this article might not be the solutions needed. However, the seriousness of the terrorist threat against air travelers demands a questioning of current security strategy.

About the Author . . . Colonel William T. Corbett, USA (Ret.), is vice president and European general manager of International Security Management, an Arlington, VA-based security firm. Corbett lives in Germany, where for the past 15 years he has worked with European and Middle Eastern counterterrorism. He is a member of ASIS.
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Author:Corbett, William T.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Oct 1, 1989
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