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Security failures of missing Malaysian flight spark concern

March 9, 2014 at 5:25 PM EDT
According to aviation security expert Rafi Ron, although two passengers who successfully boarded Malaysian Air flight 370 were reportedly carrying stolen passports, only time and investigation will determine if the apparent security breach is related to the jet’s disappearance. Rafi joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the state of international airport security.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For more about whether the crash of that Malaysian jetliner was an act of terrorism, we are joined now from Washington by Rafi Ron. He is an aviation security expert and former director of security at Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport.

So, Mr. Ron, of what we do know we have a few things confirmed: We had good weather. We had experienced pilots. We had solid safety records for both the airline and the aircraft.  We had no distress signal. And then we have the incidence of these stolen passports. Does it all point toward a security failure and terrorism.

RAFI RON: There’s no question that there is a security failure by the fact that two people were allowed to board the flight with identities that do not belong to them. But whether this security failure is connected in any way to the destruction of the aircraft – or the disappearance of the aircraft – it is still yet to be determined. At this time there is no direct evidence to tie up the two events.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what about these stolen passports? How often is it that people are able to get on a plane with false identities?

RAFI RON: That is something that exposes one the weaknesses in the global aviation security system. For a very long time we’ve been identifying people by the use of documents rather than by any kind of biometric signature.  When we look at documents it is very much in the eye of the beholder – or in other terms the eye of the checker – to identify if there were some issues with that passport.

Beyond all that there is one thing that is available and at least in this case, as well as in other cases I’m afraid, worldwide that did not receive enough attention. That is the fact that those two names on the stolen passports appeared on the list that was supposed to be looked into before those passengers were allowed to board. If that had occurred, I would have expected that these two guys – these two people – would have been picked up and not allowed on the flight.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As a traveler I feel that the cost of me waiting in line and having all the passports checked is that the passports and running through some sort of international database, right? So that whether it’s INTERPOL or the FBI. In this case that didn’t happen?

RAFI RON:  Well, a lot of that is happening before you arrive at the airport. When you stand in line and you end up in front of the security agent – in our case here it’s a TSA agent – who looks at your ID whether it is a passport or a different ID and compares it to the boarding card. This is something that goes very fast and has nothing to do with checking names against the list. That should have been done earlier. Once you’ve booked a flight your name should go into the system and be checked against one of those watch lists or wanted lists.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how will they determine if it was a bomb?

RAFI RON: I think unless there will be some very specific intelligence coming, we will have to be patient until the remains of the aircraft or the remains of the aircraft will be found. The black box, hopefully, will be found and will contain substantial information. And the remains of the aircraft itself could give us good indication of what happened to it just like the case in previous incidents like the Air France flight that disappeared over the Atlantic a couple of years ago, and way back, TWA 800 after taking off from Kennedy airport.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how sophisticated are our bomb detection systems today? In the sense that there’s almost an arms race – bomb makers try to figure out a way to get in though the system and we make systems that are stronger and it keeps going up.   Are we keeping up with the bad guys?

RAFI RON: Whenever there’s a defense system there are always loopholes or cracks or alternatives that can be used as we have witnessed in cases like the liquid bombers in London some years ago. Later on with the underwear bomber who managed to take his bomb on board. So I wouldn’t say that we have covered every possible alternative, but we certainly have covered most of it. And we’re working very hard to cover more and to keep it unknown to the bad guys as to where the loopholes are.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Rafi Ron, joining us from Washington, thanks so much.

RAFI RON:  You’re welcome.