MARGARET WARNER: The last ten days have been seen new terror warnings and new government steps that once again raise the question how safe are the skies? On Saturday, July 26, the Department of Homeland Security alerted law enforcement, airlines, and airports that al-Qaida may be plotting new airline suicide hijackings this summers.
The directive said al-Qaida was exploring new methods to circumvent the tighter post-911 security measures. The extremists may plan to identify flights that transit the target country so that the hijackers would not need visas, the directive warned. It also said the hijackers may attempt to use common items carried by travelers, such as cameras modified as weapons.
In the middle of last week a controversy erupted over a leaked Homeland Security Department e-mail to the nation's air marshals, telling them that due to budget shortages they'd be getting new schedules that would eliminate any overnight stays. Democratic senators called a news conference on Wednesday to denounce the move.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: What this sorry episode proves is one thing: We don't have enough money for homeland security. The bottom line is the homeland security agency is like the proverbial bed where there are five children and enough covers for four. And what Mr. Ridge and Mr. Hutchinson keep doing is pulling the covers from one place to the other when an emergency occurs in one of those places, but there's never enough covers for all the children, for all the needs.
MARGARET WARNER: Homeland security officials rescinded the decision banning overnight stays. Later Wednesday, President Bush was asked about the new threats at a news conference.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We do know that al-Qaida tends to use the methodologies that worked in the past. That's kind of their mind set. And we have got some data that indicates that they would like to use flights - international flights, for example - and so we're focusing on the airline industry right now, and we've got reason to do so, and I'm confident we will thwart the attempts.
MARGARET WARNER: On Thursday, the Department's Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, unveiled its new airline screening program. It will ask ticket buyers for background information, then cross-check that information with law enforcement and commercially-available databases.
On Friday, there were published reports that TSA had ordered airport screeners to step up inspection of common items like cameras or toys that might disguise explosives or weapons. And this past weekend the Homeland Security and State Departments suspended the two programs that had allowed some international airline passengers to transit through the U.S. without a visa. The change will affect a limited number of passengers Homeland Security Tom Ridge said yesterday.
TOM RIDGE: The transit without visa program was a little door - less than 1 percent of the traveling public uses that - the door was open a crack and we've had to close the door.
MARGARET WARNER: Also yesterday the New York Times reported that TSA is in the process of cutting 6,000 screeners or more than 10 percent of its work force, for budget reasons. The result, the Times said, is longer lines at many airports.
MARGARET WARNER: Can America thwart another terror attack in the air? For that I'm joined by Asa Hutchinson, the homeland security undersecretary for borders and transportation. His job includes overseeing the TSA and coordinating security on U.S. borders, waterways, transportation, and immigration systems. And Congressman Edward Markey, a member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security; he's a Democrat. Welcome to you both.
Secretary Hutchinson, let's start with the terror alert. You have clearly taken steps to respond to some of the specifics in the alert. You must think it's very credible. What makes you and the intelligence committee think it's so credible?
ASA HUTCHINSON: First of all, this was a good illustration of specific threat information in which we secured a very specific response rather than a broad-based raising the alert level. I think it was very appropriate giving those directions to law enforcement and to the airline industry.
The information we had came from multiple sources: FBI, CIA. It was corroborated by independent sources as well. It was credible in our judgment. We took steps that we believe were appropriate to follow up on the already significant measures to improve the security of our airlines.
MARGARET WARNER: How confident are you that there are aren't sufficient holes in the service so hijackers could exploit to pull off another hijacking?
ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, confident enough that I intend to fly, and my wife is flying, over the summer holidays. And obviously we have taken enormous steps to improve the security, from thousands of air marshals that are flying on our airplanes for security purposes.
We have hardened the cockpit doors and based upon Congress's instructions some of our flight deck officers are actually armed. In addition, the screening of our bags and the passengers. So very significant improvements. I believe the airlines are safe. Obviously, there are always vulnerabilities; we're continuing to watch and try to close those gaps.
MARGARET WARNER: You mentioned the air marshals. We did deal with one of the controversies last week, which had to do with the overnight stays if they need them. And I gather that they're going to have overnight stays if they need them.
But there was another set of conflicting reports about whether you are still asking Congress to let you take out $100 million from the air marshal program to address your budget shortfall. It was confusing. The Wall Street Journal said Thursday you were; the Washington Post said you weren't. Are you?
ASA HUTCHINSON: We're not going to do anything to compromise the security and the mission of federal air marshals. We're very committed to that. There has been a budget shortfall in TSA, as a new organization being set up. We're working with Congress for the spend plan really for this year. As we speak, they are continuing to look at that.
But the federal air marshals, they were directed immediately to make sure that we fulfill our commitments to the overseas flights.
MARGARET WARNER: But I mean are you going to be cutting their budget?
ASA HUTCHINSON: The federal air marshals - we're not cutting the security part of it. Now as to whether there is some operational or some administrative programs that may need to be adjusted in order to accomplish the overall spend plan of TSA, we'll work with Congress to accomplish that.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Markey, how confident are you that America could thwart another hijacking in the air?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: We're safer than we were on Sept. 11. But what we have learned in just the past week is that there are still these apertures through which terrorists could potentially, successfully create a new type of threat. We saw that in this transit program that Secretary Ridge said was only one percent of passengers, but that is 600,000 people, who have been able to get through without having the full screening.
Cutting back 10 percent on the guards on planes, that's a potential problem. Cutting back 6,000 screeners that would be looking at baggage, that's another problem.
And - and I might add this - what people don't understand, who are flying on passenger planes in the United States is after they've taken off their shoes, after their bags have been screened, that all of the cargo that goes on to passenger planes, and that's 22 percent of all cargo on planes in America, is not screened at all.
And if you are looking at Lockerbie or you're looking at the fluid, the 12 ounces of fluid that Richard Reid had on him, if that was put on passenger planes in cargo it wouldn't be screened at all.
MARGARET WARNER: Is that true, that air cargo that goes on passenger aircraft is not screened?
ASA HUTCHINSON: We're screening the passenger bags and the passengers that go on the aircraft. We're looking at other strategies and security measures for the cargo itself that goes in the belly of the aircraft.
Our domestic carriers are required to participate in a known shipper program, which they would identify the record and who the shipper is so that we can have some confidence of what goes in there. We're continuing to improve that system.
MARGARET WARNER: Is the air shipper program a good way to plug the hole?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, the known shipper program is not like the known tripper program. You and I and Asa, we're known trippers. We arrive at the airport. We say "here is our credential; here is our identification." You have been able to use some computer to check us out. And they still make you take off your shoes; they still make you put your bag through the security.
But if you show up with a piece of paper with the cargo, that's going to go on underneath your feet on this plane, they don't screen the cargo. And that's very dangerous, and by the way, if it's under 16 ounces, they don't even require you to produce any paper for anything under 16 ounces, and that unfortunately is the size of the explosive that destroyed the Lockerbie and that Richard Reid had on the plane that would have destroyed that plane as well.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask a larger -- a question that tries to incorporate a number of these different items, which has to do really with the budget.
You heard Congressman Schumer say that you and Secretary Ridge, you are like the family with the five kids and only enough covers for four. And you keep moving the covers around, but you can't cover them all at once. Is that essentially the situation? Is that why you are cutting screeners; it's why you have to at least take some money out of the marshal program? And maybe why you are not yet screening air cargo?
ASA HUTCHINSON: No. I believe that we're spending money at the appropriate level. You could double the current budget and you could always find ways to spend money on homeland security. We have broad borders. We have got thousands of miles of seacoast. What we have to do is to spend the money wisely and with effective policy.
And so the level of money we're spending -- we're investing in more technology, inspection equipment, as well as personnel -- increased enormously investment in security at all levels, but it's also policy. For example, the "transit without visa" program that we suspended, it was a huge security gap that we had to fill and that was being targeted. It didn't take money. It was a matter of a policy change.
And so you have to look at both policy and strategy, as well as the investment that we're continuing to examine and we'll put what is necessary in there to protect America.
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Look, the biggest argument that is made against screening cargo that goes on to passenger planes is that it just costs too much. And if that is the argument, then what really really the point in screening people's shoes if we're not going to screen the cargo that goes on underneath them because it's too expensive?
First we should decide how much money we want to spend on homeland security, spend it, and then decide how big the tax break should be. What we've decided first is how big the tax break should be and now we can't afford to screen the cargo that goes on to passenger planes, even though we know that's the new type of aperture which al-Qaida might look to in order to threaten a plane by a new methodology.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask about this new passenger screening system. As I understand it, ticket buyers will be asked to give name address, phone number, and social security number. And then what, you are going to compare that against databases to see if people are who they say they are. I mean, what's the purpose of that and what happens if someone doesn't check out?
ASA HUTCHINSON: A very, very important point is we will require the name, the address, the date of birth but no social security number.
MARGARET WARNER: So that's been eliminated?
ASA HUTCHINSON: That is not required; that is being eliminated. And so that will not be done. And that's a very important point for America. My wife would not fly if you required that.
And of course, the reason that we obtain that information from the airlines - this information they would give for a ticket - is that we can do a better job of screening and knowing who should have secondary inspection.
Right now, quite frankly, we're having to check too many people and inconvenience them. So this is to narrow with better information; we have strong privacy rules so that there's a firewall between what is done on the commercial side and what government will have. We're not going to retain the information of the vast majority of Americans. So it's a good system and we're asking for public comment.
MARGARET WARNER: Does that sound like a smart idea to you? This way you can kind of identify which passengers maybe don't check out?
REP. EDWARD MARKEY: Well, until very recently they were going to be going through every passenger's health care records, credit records, social security number. It's good they have at least cut back on that. There are some other privacy questions, but I'm heartened that they are moving in the right direction.
The problem with that system, however, is that al-Qaida is recruiting a new group of terrorists who have no criminal records, who are recent recruits who won't show up on the computers. If that's the case, and I think that is the way they're going to go, then we've got to have the screening for them.
We'd better screen the cargo. We'd better make sure that we're not cutting the air marshals, cutting the screeners, not funding the cargo screening because they are going to be trying to find out ways of getting around this new computer system by finding people who won't show up.
MARGARET WARNER: Last very brief question is to you, Secretary Hutchinson. Americans, I think, have adjusted to post 9/11 security measures - they know how to get to the airport in advance of their flight and they know what is going to happen. Do they now have to expect that lines are going to get longer, they'll be checking more, they need to be there earlier, it's going to be more cumbersome again?
ASA HUTCHINSON: We're still trying to maintain the commitment to move people through. But they have to be very understanding and patient. So we don't expect the lines to increase because of increased inspection as much as simply increased travel during the summer months.
MARGARET WARNER: Secretary Hutchinson, Congressman Markey, thank you both.