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Christmas Scare Renews Questions Over Travel Security, Privacy

December 29, 2009 at 6:04 PM EDT
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Gwen Ifill speaks with transportation and homeland security experts about striking the right balance between providing safety in air travel and accommodating the privacy needs of passengers.
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GWEN IFILL: But, first: striking the right balance between security and sacrifice, the costs of preventing the next attack.

For that, we turn to Mary Schiavo, former inspector general of the Department of Transportation. She’s now an aviation attorney in private practice and represents many of the families whose relatives were killed in the 9/11 attacks. And David Schanzer, he’s the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.

Mary Schiavo, I want to start by asking you about what the president had to say today. He said there was a systemic failure, in fact a mix of human and systemic failure. What does that mean to you?

MARY SCHIAVO: Well, that means that all of the systems in place that were supposed to prevent this, more than one failed. Obviously first and foremost that people saw was a screening that failed, but also the various watch lists.

The watch lists were targeted and were revealed to be a problem in the summer of this year. There was a special report one by the Office of Inspector General. Congress has addressed these issues. They knew that the screening wasn’t good as well. So, many things failed, thus his call of a systemic failure.

GWEN IFILL: David Schanzer, is there — is there a technology in place that could have avoided this kind of failure?

DAVID SCHANZER, director, Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security: Well, the full body scan machines can do a better job, and they can improve the likelihood of finding something like that.

But there’s no 100 percent screening device that’s going to be able to pick up everything. And I think you have to ask yourselves before you deploy a multibillion-dollar technology whether or not you get more bang for the buck out of things like intelligence enhancement, watch-listing, more international cooperation.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s back up a minute. You said there’s no 100 percent guarantee. And the president, in fact, said that himself today. But wouldn’t people be satisfied if — knowing that, since 9/11, we were at 75 percent, 80 percent?

DAVID SCHANZER: Well, it’s all a bit of — it’s all probabilistic.

The question is, though, that we have an adaptive adversary, that whatever technology we deploy, they’re going to take steps to try to circumvent it. And, so, the problem is, if you invest huge amounts of money in these technologies, they might become obsolete when the next type of threat comes up six months or a year from now.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Mary Schiavo?

MARY SCHIAVO: Well, that’s — that’s really not the way I would approach it at all.

Obviously, we have to invest in the technology, because it’s the technology that can spot so many of these threats. Not 100 percent? Well, it could be very close to 100 percent, because there are four different machines with four different technologies that can spot explosives and explosive materials and components of bombs.

And, here, we can’t say we rely on profiling and intelligence, because that’s what we were relying on, on September 11, 2001. We don’t always fit the profile. There have been young beautiful North Korean women to someone over Indiana in 1933 blowing up planes. We cannot rely on profiling and intelligence, because we have proven that, over the last 70 years, it has failed. Hardware is our last line of defense, and it can be pretty close to 100 percent.

GWEN IFILL: What about that visa issue? If perhaps someone had taken seriously the father’s complaint, shouldn’t — isn’t that something that could have caught before he even got to a machine?

MARY SCHIAVO: Absolutely. It could have been caught. It should have been caught. But, once again, that points out the — the possibility of human failure.

And that was pointed out. The government knew that these watch lists were a problem as early as this summer. There was a report to Congress — it has been declassified — it’s on the Internet, for heaven’s sakes — that this was a real problem.

And this is the same thing we saw eight-and-a-half years ago on September 11, 2001. We weren’t even sure who these people were. Some had visas. Some did not. And whenever you rely on a named-based system, which is what the watch list is, that can also be circumvented by phony documents and also by trading off documents once you’re in the sterile area.

GWEN IFILL: David Schanzer, it seems like there a lot of costs that we’re talking about here, the costs of actually the physical equipment, of getting the money, the costs of what you give up once you agree to this sort of — of what some people consider to be an invasive technology.

What would you say the costs are?

DAVID SCHANZER: Well, you have named some of them. The fact of the matter is, we live in a world of limited resources. So, we have to make trade-offs and choices about which set of policies and which sets of technologies we want to deploy.

Your other guest mentioned four different types of machines. Well, I don’t think we’re going to be able to deploy four different new types of machines, not only in the United States, but we would need to deploy these things globally to truly protect us.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have screening devices. We — absolutely, we should. All I’m saying is that you have to consider the full package and figure out what set of policies is going to do the best at reducing the risks that we all face.

GWEN IFILL: Mary Schiavo, we saw you saying, yes, we are. You know, those four machines can be deployed.

But let me ask you this. At what cost in terms of civil liberties?

MARY SCHIAVO: Well, the cost in civil liberties, the great thing about machines is, they treat everyone the same. The machines don’t violate our civil liberties.

What violates civil liberties, when you say, well, we’re going to pick out this person and look at them, or this person and look at her, et cetera. The machines treat us all the same.

The only civil liberties issue so far that makes any sense is where it reveals the shape of the human being. But even that, the machines have gotten better. And the private parts can be shaded or — or not shown. And those machines have improved as well.

And as far as putting machines in place, for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, we had four CTX machines to screen bags for explosives. Now we have thousands of them, so we can do it as a country. And, by the way, the cost at ground zero on 9/11 alone was about $100 billion.

I think people would say, exactly, we ought to spend at least that, and 10 times that to make aviation secure, because it’s been the target of choice for terrorists since 1919.

GWEN IFILL: Well, David Schanzer, we are talking about a cost-vs.-benefit equation here, to some degree. Is this $100 billion cost, whatever price tag you put on it, worth what we might give up in order to — to implement it?

DAVID SCHANZER: Well, just to make one point, the privacy protections that your guest mentioned might have made it more difficult to detect this particular device.

I just think that, when you have limited resources, you have no choice but to make these risk trade-offs. Maybe some types of devices would be useful, but, again, this device, the body scanner, is used in secondary screening. It isn’t used for everybody.

So, at some point, you are picking who is going to go through that device and who isn’t, unless you’re, again, willing to deploy it and have everybody in the world who’s traveling at that point be screened. So, that is a very expensive endeavor. And, again, the adversary is just going to simply adapt and try to find a different way to attack us.

GWEN IFILL: So, Mary Schiavo, let’s assume that you’re not going to agree for this moment on this question of the machines. What, other than that, do you think can be done in order to address this kind of problem before it arrives again?

MARY SCHIAVO: Well, first, the thing that we had, first and foremost, is, we also had air marshals. And I have to say, when we didn’t learn the passenger’s name who tackled the terrorist immediately, I was hoping it was an air marshal, because, on September 11, 2001, we had 35 air marshals.

We were promised now that we have thousands. There are many reports of the exact number, but I don’t want to say it. But we need to also deploy the air marshal technology, also continue to train — pilots have now been trained to carry weapons. And we do need to go back on some of the basic technology, because everybody touts El-Al security.

Remember, El-Al has air marshals on every plan. So, they don’t rely just on profiling. They don’t rely on just machines, although they do use the machines, and they are pretty effective. El-Al has taken out terrorists in-flight with air marshals on the plane in-flight. That’s successful, too.

GWEN IFILL: The early reports is that there was no air marshal on this particular flight.

David Schanzer, what would you say that should be done, short of putting this kind of high-tech — this kind of high-tech machine in every single airport checkpoint?

DAVID SCHANZER: Well, with $100 billion, you could buy a lot of international cooperation.

The British took this individual off of the list of the visa people that could get into their country. So, you would need a lot more international cooperation. And that — that requires staffing, more people to review visa applications abroad, better watch-listing procedures, and more coordination, intelligence analysts.

I think those, in — in the long run, are going to be more cost-effective than screening devices.

GWEN IFILL: David Schanzer and Mary Schiavo, thank you both for joining us.

MARY SCHIAVO: Thank you.

DAVID SCHANZER: Thank you.