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Security Breach

December 24, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: I am joined by Kenneth Quinn, former chief counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration, where he chaired the Pan Am 103 task force that recommended new antiterrorism measures. He currently heads the aviation security practice at the Washington-based law firm Pillsbury Winthrop; and Michael Levine, a former executive at three of the nation’s airlines. He teaches law at Harvard University. Mr. Quinn, what red flags does this whole incident raise for you?

KENNETH QUINN: Well, it points out that we still have technological shortcomings in getting at the improvised explosive devices whether it’s going to be on checked baggage where Congress has mandated it to be in place by January 18. That’s unrealistic. We probably can’t get it in place until the end of the year 2002 but we also have to be mindful of carry-on bags and things that are going through magnetometers. It’s very difficult to pick up plastic explosives as we have learned in Lockerbie and Pan Am 103. There are human factors challenges, both with respect to finding and interrogating individuals, making sure they can’t board flights. I don’t know why this gentleman couldn’t board originally at Charles DeGaulle but obviously why he was able to penetrate the next day is a very important question they need to nail down.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about carry on baggage and checked baggage. This was in his shoes. How unusual is that?

KENNETH QUINN: Yeah. Well, magnetometers, themselves, what you walk through, are very difficult sometimes, imperfect technology, the calibration needs to be set just so, you need to be knowing what you’re looking for. So you have to combine it with a very vigorous human factors approach, of making sure you know who it is — in this case, it was a one-way ticket. That should have triggered more intensive interrogation, which I believe personally is far more effective in an Israeli-based approach to security than simply relying on a hand wand or relying on a magnetometer.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Levine, what red flags went on in your mind when you first heard about this?

MICHAEL LEVINE: What this reminds me of is that basically in aviation security, you are trying to balance three factors, and it’s very difficult to balance them all correctly. You’re trying to actually provide a screen that will prevent people who are intent to doing harm to airplanes to get on an airplane. You’re trying to provide the appearance of security, both because passengers find it reassuring and also because it may deter terrorists a bit, if they visibly see a lot of security activity going on. But you’re also trying to preserve the utility of air transportation. Obviously if you fully interrogated, stripped, ran a detector over every piece and every person that got on an airplane, you would dramatically reduce the risk of flying but air transportation would become unusable.

GWEN IFILL: Excuse me. Professor Levine, after September 11, with so much talk about profiling of passengers, this fellow, as Mr. Quinn pointed out, did not — had a one-way ticket, didn’t have any luggage that he checked — according to people on the plane would have looked suspicious, whatever that means. Why didn’t that stop him? He had been turned down for a chance to fly on the same flight the day before.

MICHAEL LEVINE: Well, I think that raise two very important issues. One is that we do not yet have very consistent procedures, airport-to-airport around the world. And people who will get stopped at one airport don’t get stopped at another or who would be stopped by one person don’t get stopped by another. That’s a big problem. The second thing is that we need a way, I think, to separate the passengers who don’t present much of a threat to passengers who are more likely to present a threat. I have favored issuance of a travel card that people could use and apply for and be connected to security databases that would help them identify themselves as people who aren’t a threat. I think others should be interrogated and I think Ken Quinn is right. The use of Israeli-type procedures on those people would be entirely appropriate.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Quinn, you used to work for the Federal Aviation Administration. On December 11, only two weeks ago the FAA issued a directive saying look in people’s shoes. Beware of the potential for bringing explosives on board. Yet, this happened two weeks later. How did this work?

KENNETH QUINN: And good for them for providing the warning because all too often in aviation security we seem to be battling the last battle and not anticipating the next. We’ve almost come full circle here with hijacking in the ’60s and 70s and magnetometers and X-ray devices shut that down, an improvised electronic device in Lockerbie — we tried to have full x-ray screening and bag matching of every passenger on international flights but we ignored the domestic system. With September 11 you had suicidal hijackers. We’ve gone full circle with that and now we’re back to improvised electronic devices. We need to get much more diligent.

GWEN IFILL: How good is a warning that isn’t heeded, or is it just that no warning can be a complete lockdown?

KENNETH QUINN: Well, it is only as good as, number one, the sources and methods. It needed to be protected. So sometimes have you to be less specific than you would ordinarily not want to provide. But it has to be as targeted as you possibly can so people know exactly– x-ray image, for example, pre-Lockerbie, a Toshiba cassette recorder with detonators and plastic explosives. What can we look for? But it’s also only as good as the technology itself. And unfortunately what we have in explosive detection systems is state-of-the-art has not advanced much frankly. Since 1988, it is too big, too slow, unreliable and it’s too darn expensive. We have to get far more of them out in the field and more effective and greater through points without as many false positives, otherwise we’re going to shut down the system all in the name of trying to fight the last battle and not go after the next.

GWEN IFILL: And, Professor Levine, were you talking about how this flight originated in another country and maybe everybody is not as good or as cautious as the United States is right now about these things. Is there is any way to enforce that if, perhaps, someone is more likely to get on a plane in another country and fly into the United States?

MICHAEL LEVINE: Well, I think first we need to articulate very clearly what the processes are that we want imposed. They’re not even imposed consistently at U.S. airports around the country. Then I do think we should make it clear that we are going to dispatch an airplane to the United States, the passengers have to have been through these procedures wherever it is they’re coming from.

GWEN IFILL: You know, on January 1, there is supposed to be a deadline that is supposed to be met on a different issue but related on checked baggage screening, which even the Secretary of Transportation has said, Professor, it is not going to be met. Is that something that passengers should be concerned about?

MICHAEL LEVINE: Well, I think that the issue of baggage screening is something passengers should worry about but this goes back to what I said at the beginning of my remarks. Political pressures required the Congress to promise something that is physically impossible. The secretary answered in a candid way a question of whether it could be done in time and was roundly chastised for having been honest. And I think the fact is, it is going to take a while to get these procedures in place. We ought to be, in the meantime, trying to sort the passengers who represent a threat from the passengers– or might represent a threat, from the passengers who clearly don’t, because we can’t get it all in place at once.

GWEN IFILL: We saw in Betty Ann Bowser’s piece that in airports all across the United States today, people who were taking off their shoes and putting them through the magnetometers. Is that what an example of what you were suggesting, which is fighting the last war?

KENNETH QUINN: Yeah. And I think it’s also important too that we’re not discriminating against the United States and U.S. carriers either. I saw out of Switzerland today, they’re directing new security procedures only against U.S. airlines. We’ve got to be very careful here. It is a global aviation system. Truly on September 11 those attacks were against the flag on the tail of the airplane, not necessarily against those great carriers. But security is only as strong as its weakest link. And so if they get on in a foreign air carrier or if they target a foreign air carrier, it is going to be– could be a terrible tragedy again. So we need to make sure that there is a uniform raising of the level of security in a way that makes sense, and in a way that doesn’t leave the gaps that will that my friend Michael is pointing out.

GWEN IFILL: But how do you guard against the next threat instead of the last one?

KENNETH QUINN: Well, good intelligence is a good place. We are talking about airport security and airline procedures and FAA procedures. Really what we’re doing in Afghanistan and infiltrating terrorist cells — and this is a great example again, too, of tracking people who are obtaining passports perhaps illegally or who have overextended their visas who are presenting a threat within inside the borders of the United States, with 19 people overextending their visas. We have to get at better border control and better intelligence and law enforcement work. In many respects, the airport itself and the airline are the last line of defense and it’s a weak one at that.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Professor Levine, here’s a question that everyone wants answered right now, which is: Should people feel more rattled now about traveling right here in the holiday season?

MICHAEL LEVINE: Well, I don’t think so, but that’s because in fact the risk to any individual passenger on any individual trip is very low, because people drive, for example, on Christmas and there are people on the road who have had too much to drink. But the fact is that there are people out there who do want to do harm to the United States and to passengers on airplanes. And if that concerns people to the point where they are prepared to exclude– to basically all the enjoyment of life, I don’t think we can do much to reassure them. On the other hand, the system does detect threats. It does deter people. We have tightened it drastically since September 11, and I think that although it’s not perfect yet, it’s pretty adequate.

GWEN IFILL: We’re going to have to leave that debate here for tonight. Michael Levine and Kenneth Quinn, thank you very much for joining us.