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Holiday Security Concerns

December 31, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: For more now on these security preparations, we’ll hear from: Jerry Bussell, the director of homeland security for the state of Nevada; Jalal Haidar, an airport security consultant, the former head of security for Middle East Airlines and former chief of airport operations at O’Hare Airport; and Steven Simon: He specialized in counterterrorism on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and is now a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation in Washington.

Jalal Haidar, I want to start with you. As an aviation expert, can you explain to us what the purposes of these no-fly zones we’re hearing about now over American cities?

JALAL HAIDAR: Sure. Indeed. We know that the restrictions that have been imposed apply to certain forms of aviation, mainly corporate aviation and general aviation. General aviation security requirements are not as rigid and not as effective as security requirements that are required of commercial airliners. It’s much easier to operate a general aviation aircraft out of any airport.

It is not really only a corporate aviation or general aviation. The problem with the issue is it’s a terminology issue. People think that when you have a general aviation aircraft or corporate aviation aircraft, people think of small aircraft. While that’s not the case, we have large aircraft the size of a 747 or even a 777 — that’s Boeing 777 or Boeing 747 that are general aviation aircraft or corporate aviation aircraft and their security measures and standards are not again as rigid as or as effective, if I may, as commercial aviation.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Haidar, is there any reason on New Year’s Eve we should be especially more worried about what you clearly see as a loophole in the security fabric?

JALAL HAIDAR: It is not really a matter of having a loophole in the security fabric or infrastructure of our nation. It goes beyond that. We know that receiving a new year on a New Year’s Eve is a time when massive crowds of people gather in some areas, whether metropolitan areas, take, for example, the Times Square or other places around large cities in the nation like Chicago, Denver, Atlanta.

Those crowds when they go out to celebrate the arrival of a new year, they become really a target. It’s an attraction to terrorist groups where casualties could be really massive. That’s why we should be extra cautious.

I truly give the Department of Homeland Security very high credit for doing what they’re doing right now and making the whole country and the population aware of a potential threat.

GWEN IFILL: Steven Simon, in your experience in counterterrorism are bigger holidays reasons for bigger concerns and in particular these holidays and this threat level that we’re at now?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, al-Qaida thinks in symbolic terms. American holidays will have symbolic value for them in that if they can hit their adversary on days that are particularly precious to their adversary, then the victory of a successful attack is all that much more impressive and to be sought after.

At the same time, tactical considerations come into play. The group may want to hit us on a certain day but ultimately it’s going to come down to whether or not they can pull it off on that day and they have to get the people in place. These things take long periods of preparation. And if American defenses are up, then there may be complications that prevent them from attacking on the day of their choice.

GWEN IFILL: What do we know today about this orange alert and why it is still in place on New Year’s Eve as it was on Christmas Eve and whether there are … when Tom Ridge and others tell Americans to be on guard to look out for things, what they ought to be looking out for?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, the U.S. government received or rather was the object of a blizzard of threat information over the past few weeks. There was so much that they had to be concerned. Not only that but this huge amount of threat information came against a background of back-to-back statements by Osama bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, predicting an attack.

Now, you know, the amount of threat information not just the specifics of it but just the very frequency of it and the volume of it against the back drop of these statements by the al-Qaida leaders correlates very well with impending attacks. So the government would have had good reason to be concerned.

GWEN IFILL: Jerry Bussell, you’ve got a big night ahead of you tonight. If I recall correctly, the big airport in Las Vegas is not very far from the strip. You’ve heard aviation expert talking about the loopholes in the civil aviation, the general aviation system.

You’ve heard our counterterrorism expert talking about the level of threats. How does that influence what you’re doing to prepare for tonight?

JERRY BUSSELL: Well, they’re certainly right on. There’s no question of what the general said is specific and we understand that. And McCarran International Airport is literally next to the Las Vegas strip where we’re going to have from three to four hundred thousand people in the largest block party in America. That’s why we have asked for the no fly zone or the temporary restrictions.

And we’ve asked our federal partners at DHS to come in and help us with a number of precautionary and preventive measures, things that will deter someone by identifying that we’re doing it. We have helicopter aircraft that are capable of interdiction, much like the aircraft that are used by the drug dealers who would be trying to come across and those kinds of things. But we are at the highest state of alert that we have ever been. There’s no question about that.

GWEN IFILL: Describe for me what that means aside from the no fly zone. Are you frisking everybody on the strip tonight?

JERRY BUSSELL: Well, we’ve asked everyone to please not bring bottles or cans on there or backpacks or anything that looks bulky as if a bag or something like that. Be prepared to be searched. We’ve asked a number of those who protect us to suspend their holidays.

I don’t know of any agency, whether it be the federal agencies that are here with us, any of our state agencies, whether it be the highway patrol or the Department of Public Safety or Health or whatever or any of the local agencies here, the sheriff, the fire department, the health departments that are not on full status. There are no leaves, and we’re doing this because it is not only an orange alert, it is the New Year’s Eve.

We have 18 of the 20 largest hotels on the strip right next to each other. We’re going to have fireworks off ten of those hotels. It’s just prudent that we take all of these precautions to deter an attack. The difference … we’ve had these things available to us before. In many cases we had them available but we didn’t deploy them. I want to assure everyone that we’ve deployed these assets.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Haidar, let’s get back to the aviation question for a moment. One of the other announcements this week was that air marshals would be put on international flights coming into the United States. Explain to us what difference that will make.

JALAL HAIDAR: This makes a big difference, Gwen. Let’s say, for example, a flight that’s coming from a high-risk city or a high-risk destination coming into the U.S. We know that security measures are not equal around the world. There are security measures in place that are based on international standards that are recognized and set by a U.N. arm on civil aviation. Some countries don’t have the means to do all the security measures that a country like the U.S. does.

Therefore, implementing extra security measures on board an aircraft would indeed help and ensure that a flight might be safer or more secure. But there is a problem with that, however. Having an air marshal program does not happen overnight. It does not truly evolve overnight. This is a very complex process. It is useful; it’s important. I think the requirement is a very sound one.

Secretary Ridge was right on when he demanded that and he should stick to his decision. However, some of the countries that operate scheduled flights into the U.S. will have some serious problems setting up an air marshal program. They need help in the set-up, the training and the execution.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Simon, in your experience, when we talk about the use of airplanes as a threat, is that a specific threat that we should be paying attention to all the time or are we just overreacting because of what happened on 9/11?

STEVEN SIMON: No. Aviation has been a target, a favorite target, of these problem groups especially al-Qaida for the last dozen years or so. Think back to the 1995-96 timeframe when the group tried to destroy about a dozen jumbo jets simultaneously over the Pacific.

Aviation is a really delectable target for these groups in part because U.S. flag carriers represent the U.S., so you hit the carrier, you hit the United States.

The population on board an aircraft is your ultimate defenseless population. And a strike against them demonstrates the vulnerability of your target.

Not only that but if you hit an airplane, you know, with very little effort, you cause quite a few casualties. That’s attractive just on its own.

GWEN IFILL: So in your experience what would you advise individuals to do on a night like tonight in they want to go out and have a little celebration?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, look, the probability of any one individual being caught up in a terrorist attack is very small. I would just go out and have a good time.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Mr. Bussell, I’m sure you’re happy to hear that as an answer. What are you telling individuals to do in Las Vegas?

JERRY BUSSELL: You know, we’re saying out here that it’s time to trust those of us who are responsible for your protection. It’s time to believe that what we’ve told you is true. It’s time for you to go out and do just exactly that. Let’s celebrate the new year. Let’s do not take counsel with our fears. Let’s make every effort to be vigilant. Let’s make every effort to be safe. Let’s make sure that we are aware of our surroundings. However, let’s go out and have some fun.

GWEN IFILL: I just have to ask you about one report in the past week which is that the … part of the reason these Air France jetliners were grounded last weekend is because they were supposed to be, it was reported, headed for Las Vegas. What have you heard about that?

JERRY BUSSELL: You know, we were very concerned when that report came out. And the very first thing that I did was I contacted my counterparts at the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence agency. I asked them for specific information. Then I went over to FBI because we are, in fact, in constant contact with the FBI. Then I went over to the Department of Defense and we asked for this.

And then Governor Guinn, my boss, called Mr. Secretary Ridge and they were governors together and said, you know, do you have any specific actionable information that you can give me — this is Governor Guinn talking to Governor Ridge. And Governor Ridge said, “Kenny, if I have something, you’re going to be the first to know.”

I understand that there was basically a firestorm of information about Las Vegas. Every threat is taken serious. Every threat needs to be developed. But in this case, I feel that maybe some of the dots were drawn together a little bit premature — because I could find nothing that indicated any thing. And I assure you that we were very, very concerned with that.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Bussell, Mr. Simon and Mr. Haidar, I wish you all a Happy New Year.

STEVE SIMON: Thank you, same to you.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you.