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Are There Sufficient Security Measures In Place For Cargo Planes?

November 1, 2010 at 6:08 PM EDT
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Jim Lehrer talks to terrorism expert Richard Clarke and Air Security Analyst Rafi Ron about the security measures in place for cargo planes and if they are sufficient in light of recent terror attempts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: back to the cargo bomb scare story, and to Jeffrey Brown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of the pieces of the bomb plot puzzle have begun to come together in the last several days, as we heard earlier, but many questions remain about the perpetrators and the air security system.

We sort some of that out now with Richard Clarke, a senior adviser for counterterrorism in the Clinton administration and the early days of the George W. Bush administration. He’s now a consultant. And Rafi Ron, president of New Age Security Solutions, an aviation and transportation consulting firm, he’s a former director of security for the Israeli Airport Authority at Ben Gurion Airport.

Richard Clarke, I will start with you. One part of the investigation is to figure out who is behind this, of course. What do you see as the key leads being pursued now?

RICHARD CLARKE, Former U.S. Counterterrorism Official: Well, I think it’s pretty clear al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is behind it.

And the evidence is from the bomb itself, which seems to be of the same manufacture as other bombs AQAP has used in attempts at Christmas to blow up an airplane over the United States and, earlier, an attempt to kill the head of Saudi intelligence.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that ties it to the bombmaker, al-Asiri?

RICHARD CLARKE: Right. And al-Asiri is a part of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It’s also hard to imagine what other group would have done it. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has 500 to 600 operatives in Yemen. And we know the bomb came from Yemen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rafi Ron, at the same time, of course, there’s still the question of whether there are other packages out there. How do authorities go about checking for that?

RAFI RON, CEO, New Age Security Solutions: Well, we saw that the immediate response was to identify all the shipments that came more or less at the same time from Yemen towards…

Excuse me — to the United States, and stop them and check them before they are allowed to proceed.

And that is — that was very appropriate. I believe that, probably, within the next 24 hours, we will realize if there is anything else in the system. Otherwise, I think that we could feel comfortable that at least this wave was totally discovered.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, I’m going to let you take a drink of water, so you can clear your throat.

RAFI RON: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask Richard Clarke this question first, but I will come back to you. Richard Clarke, one of the big questions here is, does this signal a new sophistication in bomb technology, with the substance used and the delivery system? What does it tell us, and what questions do you still have?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, the bomb was PETN, which is an explosive that we have seen used many, many times around the world.

What seems unclear to me is exactly when the bomb was supposed to go off. The latest information that I have seems to indicate that the bombs were supposed to go off over the United States, perhaps over Chicago, over a highly populated area and a media market. And one would have the image of a plane blowing up over a city, pieces of it falling into the metropolitan area.

I think that was the hope. There are only a few people on an air freighter like that, perhaps three or four. So, it wasn’t an attempt to kill a lot of people in the air. But I think it was an attempt to send a message that they can reach, even from the Arabian Peninsula, even to President Obama’s hometown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, Mr. Ron, that raises the sort of puzzlement here of why these things would be addressed to synagogues in Chicago if it was meant to go off in the air.

RAFI RON: Well, it might be just another ironic angle to this affair, because, practically, if you put yourself in the shoes of somebody who wants to conceal such an attempted attack, then obviously a synagogue wouldn’t be the best address to put on the parcel, because a parcel coming from Yemen to a synagogue in Chicago is obviously not exactly natural.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, let’s move to this question of air security, specifically for cargo. And I will start with you, Mr. Ron. In that — does it look as though, if not for the Saudi intelligence connection here, these parcels would have gotten through security?

RAFI RON: Well, we obviously try to avoid discussing publicly the gaps in our system.

But I think that, when we look at the priorities that we have decided upon in dealing with the threats to aviation, air cargo wasn’t the top priority, especially not air cargo that goes on cargo aircrafts. The cargo that goes on passenger aircraft is something that we have identified in the past year.

TSA has been handling this through a strategy and new regulations that went into full action about a month earlier, in August. There is still time to look and see whether this is fully implemented and they are providing the right controls.

But, as far as the — all cargo aircraft, this is obviously a lesser priority, as Mr. Clarke mentioned earlier. The aircraft itself is hardly a good target for terrorism, but it could become a good target for terrorism if you control the timing of the explosion and the — and therefore the location and cause damage on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but, Mr. Clarke, this question has been debated a lot. We have talked about it on this program, the issue of cargo, specifically whether it’s on passenger planes or cargo-only planes. How vulnerable is the system? Where are we now? What should — what questions should we be asking ourselves?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, I think it’s no secret — the 9/11 Commission talked about it six years ago — that cargo on passenger aircraft is screened in various ways, but cargo on pure cargo aircraft doesn’t receive that level of screening.

The 9/11 Commission called for it. The Congress actually has mandated it. But it hasn’t yet been implemented, because it’s extremely costly to achieve. It will increase the cost of sending things. And it’s very difficult to do.

By the way, the thing that was the bomb, the printer, was actually looked at by the British after they were told it was a bomb, and their first examination determined that it wasn’t. So, even if there had been screening, this bomb could possibly have gotten through.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Clarke, I do want to bring in this incident today in Greece with the parcel bombs. I don’t know if anybody knows of any particular connections at this point. Do you? And — or do you — or do we see this as a possible copycat type situation?

RICHARD CLARKE: No, I think, when something like this happens, and the news media casts its light on something like bombs, suddenly, they appear everywhere.

But the truth is that bombs are going off all the time all over the world. And only when our attention is focused on it by something like this al-Qaida plot do we notice. But, if you just step back and look at statistics, both in this country and around the world, bombs are going off all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have anything to add to that?

RAFI RON: Well, I just want to add the — as far as the actual screening of the cargo that goes on all cargo aircraft, technologically, it is still a great challenge.

The — I don’t think that, at this time, we are able to do this in the way — in the way we do this when it comes to passengers and their bags. So, there are a lot of challenges along the way when it comes to cargo security.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mr. Clarke, just to end by coming back to where we began, because we talked — you — you said this clearly points to Yemen.

I mean, this again is something we have been talking about a lot, as — Yemen as a new source of international terror. What does this case tell us about that, and what do you see as the next steps?

RICHARD CLARKE: Well, it’s not exactly a new source. There are probably more al-Qaida operatives in Yemen then there are in Afghanistan, perhaps Afghanistan and Pakistan put together. Al-Qaida has been changing its venue over the course of several years. The United States is on to that. The Obama administration has been focusing since it came into office on Yemen and trying to work with the government there.

The government there is anti-al-Qaida, increasingly so. But the institutions there are weak. And, so, the United States, the Saudis, and others are trying to help the government in Yemen increase its capability to fight al-Qaida. That will take a while.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Richard Clarke, Rafi Ron, thank you both very much.

RAFI RON: Thank you.