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Airline Security

September 27, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And we get reactions to the president’s plans and proposals now from four men closely watching developments in airline safety. James Oberstar of Minnesota is the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. John Mica is a Republican from Florida and chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee. Michael Levine is an adjunct professor of law at the Harvard Law School; he’s worked as an executive at three airlines. And Paul Stephen Dempsey is director of the transportation law program at the University of Denver.

Representative Mica, the president said today he wanted his package to be constructive and smart. Did he meet his goal?

REP. JOHN MICA: Well, I think he’s incorporated many of the items we agree upon. First of all, security onboard the aircraft so the flying public has confidence that we have again law enforcement onboard with the sky marshals. The second thing is deploying new technology, better cockpit security and, again, the best technology onboard. And then thirdly, the question of federalization of the process for airport security.

RAY SUAREZ: Did that go far enough, in your view?

REP. JOHN MICA: I think it covered the bases. And there’s wide agreement at least on the first two items. I think everyone also sees that the process is flawed, as far as screening. It’s been under the control of the airlines to date, sort of gone to the low-cost bidder. Federalizing the process, getting in place standards, qualifications, background testing, making that a federal responsibility is extremely important. And I think most of us agree on it. The only question is whether we put uniforms on everybody that’s conducting the screening and make them all, some 27,000, federal employees.

RAY SUAREZ: Representative Oberstar, was the president’s package everything you hoped it would be?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: I applaud the president’s initiatives. He’s made a bold stroke. It’s a good step forward. It’s not comprehensive enough. We don’t have all of the details yet, but the idea of federalization is a move in the right direction. I served on the Presidential Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism after Pan Am 103. One of our objectives was to raise the bar of security. We have an opportunity now to raise the bar far higher than we did in 1990. And federalization of the security workforce at airports, I think, is that step that we must take to engender confidence in the traveling public that everything has been done to assure the highest possible level of security.

Putting airport security screeners on the same level as our customs personnel, our immigration naturalization service, other law enforcement people, wearing a badge of the United States, sworn to up hold the law and the constitution of the United States will give travelers confidence that they have the best trained, best prepared, committed security workforce to assure safe air travel.

RAY SUAREZ: But following up on that, I believe the White House package contemplates federal oversight but not federal employment of these personnel at the screening points. Is that an important distinction?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: It’s an extremely important distinction, and I have proposed, and we’re having a good discussion with Chairman Mica, who’s been most cooperative, but I propose that we pay for this screener service with a $2.50 one-way surcharge for security as a fee on airline tickets. That’s about the price of a Starbucks Cappuccino Grande, and raise the necessary money, put it in a trust fund, establish the security workforce with different standards than we have for other workers in the federal service; that is, easier to fire, easier to move people around, easier to apply discipline.

This workforce has to be treated in a much different fashion than any others. And I think with that framework, we can have the kind of control, discipline, attention to duty and reduce the now average 126 percent turnover nationwide that we experience in today’s security workforce.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor Levine, let me turn to you at that point. What do you think of what Representative Oberstar just said and also of the Bush package overall?

MICHAEL LEVINE: Well, I think the president has it closer to right on this particular issue than Congressman Oberstar does. I think that federal oversight and federal standards, including the requirement that we reduce turnover, is I think the right way to go. After all, the folks flying the planes aren’t federal employees, and the folks fixing the planes aren’t federal employees. We do need a higher level federal or police presence at the airport to take care of problems, but I think actually we need to go at this a little differently. I think we are trying to screen the entire haystack every day to find a needle. And then we’re trying to make sure we have enough back-ups in place that, when the needle inevitably gets through, it can’t do too much damage. And I think we really need to start much earlier on this problem.

And what I would suggest is that we allow people to basically sign up to be profiled, much in the same way they can sign up to get an easy pass and go through tolls without waiting and under circumstances where the government gets information about them, but they get convenience in return. I think that what we need to do is to have some sort of a card like the INS pass that people would apply for in advance and that would allow very thorough background checks, with much more database linking than we do today, and people who voluntary to do that could go through one level of screening, and people who did not wish to have that much information in advance in the hands of the government could decide that they would take much more screening than they get now. And you might have sort of Israeli-level screening for them.

Let people choose between convenience and privacy, and I think you will get a situation in which the very large majority of people going through the airport will have been identified positively and will be seen to be no threat and we can focus much more resources on the relatively small number of people who are likely to present a problem. Obviously, I think in the process, you would also get a lot more people whose visas had expired or who had been engaged in suspicious activities and who ought to have been on a watch list or even were on a watch list and wouldn’t be caught up in the present process.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Stephen Dempsey, it sounds a little bit like a flier’s license. Are we ready for, that and do you contemplate that, given the set of measures outlined today by the President?

PAUL STEPHEN DEMPSEY: What the President has done today is very positive in terms of trying to reassure the American public so that they fly. This sector is extremely important to the success of the national economy as a whole and pulling us out of recession is going to be imminently more difficult if people stay away from air travel the way that they are now.

In terms of having an identification card for all passengers, I think that would be a positive step. I think all passengers and all airport employees, all airline employees and related professions that converge at the airport ought to have an identity card that ought to have a picture on it, it ought to have the thumb print on it, and it ought to have a magnetic strip on the back so that it can be read the way passports are read. And this way, law enforcement can go forward. I realize there’s a trade-off here between privacy, civil liberty to some extent and security and safety. But you know, if people don’t want to fly, they wouldn’t have to get a card like this. They would have the choice of going by some alternative mode of transportation.

RAY SUAREZ: Some of the things that you and the other guests have mentioned also involve a lot of increased costs. Who would pay that cost?

PAUL STEPHEN DEMPSEY: Well, this is where I disagree with Congressman Oberstar. I think that all of the people who are involved in the security function at airports ought to be federal employees, they ought to be professionals, and it ought to be a law enforcement function. However, this is the wrong time to talk about laying any kind of an additional tax on the airline industry. The airline industry financially has been crippled by the events preceding September 11 and certainly by the events since September 11. What we need to be talking about is rolling back the excise tax and the fuel tax, at least for a temporary period, to help restore the economic health of this industry.

MICHAEL LEVINE: Can I say something here?

RAY SUAREZ: Who’s that trying to jump in?

MICHAEL LEVINE: This is Mike Levine. We don’t charge people a little tax to pay for the hay highway patrol and the people who keep them safe on the streets. We understand that protection is a function of government, and obviously, to the extent that the airlines are engaged in particular special activities that might make people more vulnerable, that might be one thing. But flying has become something that almost everyone does, and where everyone expects the government to provide a certain level of protection. I happen to disagree with the other speakers.

I think the president has it right that some functions can be performed privately, some by the government. But the government needs to take control of it and set standards and take responsibility for it. But one other thing I’d like to add: To the extent that one is concerned about civil liberties, and I am, I don’t see any reason why you can’t make this card voluntary. I think the result would be that almost everyone would sign up for it, and people who didn’t sign up for it would be subjected to a very high level of interrogation and security, not by the folks watching the scanners, but by professional interrogators and trained agents. And then they could choose whether they wanted to have privacy or convenience.

RAY SUAREZ: Representative Mica, you wanted to get in here?

REP. JOHN MICA: Well, they’ve tried to fix this before. And even today, we do not have regulations for certifications for screeners in place, for example. If you look at what took place on Tuesday, the 11th, you had first of all, a failure of the system. First of all, the screeners had no standards in place for screening. We had been trying to do that since 1987, another directive by Congress in ’96 and one in 2001. We had no one who stopped box cutters. No one made a rule as far as stopping box cutters.

No one made a rule to put in place the best technology we have. We have equipment that will detect plastic: Plastic guns, plastic knives. And that is not being allowed to be deployed. And the point about a national identity card, passports are forged, ID’s are forged, and you can get access to almost any airport today even with the security systems that are in place. We need to go back and pass the attorney general’s package and catch these people, these terrorists, before they ever get to the airport.

RAY SUAREZ: Representative Oberstar?

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: I’d like to join with Chairman Mica on the concern, his concern, which I share, about the ability to forge such identity cards and bypass security in that manner. I think we need to move the perimeter of security much farther afield, however. As the Presidential Commission recommended in 1990, we should create a counter terrorism entity that would be the focal point for all counter terrorism, intelligence activities of the U.S. Government and with our allies, to gather information on terrorist activities abroad.

If that had been done, as the Commission recommended 11 years ago, we’d have had such an intelligence-gathering entity and the ability to send to airlines names of known participants in terrorist organizations, enter those names in their computer reservation database, and filter those people out when they attempt to buy a ticket — and do that passenger profiling well in advance. That’s the perimeter for security. But come back to the matter of airport screeners, France, Germany, all impose a surcharge for security to pay for their security systems, which are run by the governments in those cases. I think we have an opportunity to raise the bar of security very substantially here. We ought not to let it pass.

RAY SUAREZ: Paul Stephen Dempsey, there is a mix in today’s announced plan of things that are going to be done right away and things that are going to be phased in over many years. But for the flying public, let’s talk a little bit about how the experience of flying, just the act of heading over to the airport and flying somewhere else in the United States, will change.

PAUL STEPHEN DEMPSEY: Well, it will change. Newsweek earlier this year had a cover story. The thing that distressed passengers most were delays. Delays obviously are going to get worse for the passengers. Whether they slow down and clog and constipate the system and raise costs and reduce productivity for the airlines is as yet unclear. But clearly the business of flying, at least for some time, will become less convenient. But I think the American people understand that their security and safety is far more important than the time that they will save if these procedures go away.

MICHAEL LEVINE: But we have to preserve the usefulness of the flying system, and we have to find ways to use it conveniently even as we’re reassured. We can find non-forgetable ways, retinal scans, hand scans — we use that for the INS pass now. We need to find a way to get most of the people through the system safely but conveniently enough to make the airlines worth using.

REP. JAMES OBERSTAR: I think a greater challenge for all of us is the experience in the aftermath of Pan Am 103, when we all believed that the nature of aviation security had been changed forever and people would adapt and would accept any burden. It wasn’t a year afterward, after the new legislation had been enacted that airlines, airports, other interest groups were lobbying against tougher regulations, keeping public acceptance of inconvenience, intrusiveness into their lives at a high level is the challenge for an open democratic society. Maybe this time, maybe if we call the surcharge fund the September 11 fund and remind people every day that our vigilance can never be lowered, that we’ll be able to sustain a high level of acceptance and participation and willingness by the public to continue to travel and accept the inconveniences.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, gentlemen, I have to stop it there. Thank you all for joining us.