SEPTEMBER 3, 1996
Airport security has tightened up quite a bit in the last twenty years, but is it enough? As Tom Bearden discovers, quite a bit still slips by the watchful eyes of those paid to protect the friendly skies.
July 25, 1996:
New and more effective technology exists for better airport security and airline anti-terrorism. But neither the government nor the private sector feels they can afford the expense. A panel of experts discuss who should pay for safer skies.
July 25, 1996:
What equipment is in place to prevent explosives from being smuggled onto airliners? What equipment is available to improve detection? Tom Bearden reports.
July 19, 1996:
Threats To Freedom.
The planting of a terrorist bomb continues to circulate as one of the possible reasons behind the downing of TWA Flight 800. A panel of experts discusses attempts to balance security with personal freedom.
Browse the Online NewsHour's transportation coverage.
TOM BEARDEN: It's an intricate dance repeated thousands of times every day at airports all over America--the departure of a commercial airliner. Ground crews fill the plane's belly with luggage, air cargo, and the U.S. Mail. The passenger section is cleaned--in-flight meals are stowed in the galley. Security's tighter than it was 20 years ago, airport workers undergo background checks and must wear badges--procedures designed to weed out anybody who might want to put a bomb on the plane. Passengers are electronically "frisked" by walk-through magnetometers. Their carry-on bags are x-rayed. It sounds reassuring, but according to a host of experts, security at U.S. Airports is so full of holes a sieve would be jealous. Larry Johnson was deputy director of the State Department's counter-terrorism division under Presidents Bush and Clinton.
LARRY JOHNSON, Former State Department Official: You do not have any procedures or technology in place at domestic airports to prevent a bomb from getting on U.S. domestic passenger aircraft.
TOM BEARDEN:Take the x-ray machines, for example--guns and knives are pretty easy to spot-- and some bomb components can be seen if the operator is paying attention. Tracy Schadeberg says most of the time the operators aren't paying attention. Now a computer consultant in Los Angeles, Schadeberg spent eight years working for three major airlines, including two years as a ticket counter supervisor--among her duties, testing the x-ray machine operators by putting simulated bombs on the conveyor belt. She says some of the phony bombs were glaringly obvious .
TRACY SCHADEBERG, Former Airline Employee: The clock attached to the dynamite, I could see it right on the screen with the wires and everything.
TOM BEARDEN: But the operator didn't notice.
TRACY SCHADEBERG: I even had a friend that put a grenade in a box and put it through security and they did not detect it.
TOM BEARDEN: That had to be blatantly obvious on the screen.
TRACY SCHADEBERG: Yes.
TOM BEARDEN: How often did this happen?
TRACY SCHADEBERG: I'd say six out of ten times.
TOM BEARDEN: Six out of ten times they would not see the bomb?
TRACY SCHADEBERG: Right.
TOM BEARDEN: But even the best operators can be fooled. Doug Laird, who runs a security consulting business, says the machines aren't effective when it comes to explosives.
DOUG LAIRD, Aviation Security Consultant: Marginal , to be honest. Under ideal situations, where everybody is doing their jobs 100%, you may find devices.
TOM BEARDEN: But critics say very few operators are doing their jobs 100 percent, and say it's because the pay is low. Airport security jobs only pay minimum wage or slightly better because that's all the airlines, who are responsible for airport security, are willing to pay.
ISSY BOIM, Airline Security International: What is it, a G-2?
EMPLOYEE: Yeah. It's a G-2 going from San Diego to La Guardia.
TOM BEARDEN: Issy Boim runs a company that supplies flight planning and security to corporate executives. He once worked in security for El Al, the Israeli airline that is legendary for being ultra cautious. He came to the U.S., hoping to use his skills here. He quickly quit in frustration.
ISSY BOIM: They wouldn't pay for it, and by the money that they will pay me, I could only hire somebody for $4.50 or $5.00 per hour, that's maximum. How good security can you make--with all due respect--the guy's looking for another job and he's using the time he's working for you only temporarily, so this is a big issue.
TOM BEARDEN: Boim himself laughs grimly at how lax companies are when it comes to checking their workers' backgrounds. He says many are not only incompetent, they're outright security risks. A worker's background history is supposed to be checked before they're allowed on the ramp. This plane is being serviced by employees of Airport Terminal Services, a company that provides ramp and ticket counter services for several airlines, large and small. This outsourcing--using outside workers instead of their own employees--has become increasingly common for many airlines, particularly at airports where they have only a few flights. At the time we talked to him, Nick Campbell was president of Airport Terminal Services. He said his company's new hires were carefully screened.
NICK CAMPBELL: They have to fill out on their application where they have worked or gone to school for the last ten years. I think for some of the employees that takes them back about to grade school. But that is the requirement and then the previous, the initial five years, has to be verified through a telephone check and so forth. If there are any gaps in that employee history, they have to be filled or the person can't receive that badge.
TOM BEARDEN: But according to Schadeberg, not all companies are that thorough.
TRACY SCHADEBERG: I know that when an employee gets hired for an airline, I know that they do a five-year background check, but I know that they did not check every single person, every single company that I worked for, so I'm not sure how thorough they are on that.
TOM BEARDEN: How do you know they didn't check?
TRACY SCHADEBERG: Well, because I would call, I called my previous employers and advised them that they may be calling, and then called back to see if they had and they weren't aware.
TOM BEARDEN: Ed Bandolato is chairman of the National Cargo Security Council, a group which represents insurers, shippers, and some airlines.
ED BANDOLATO, National Cargo Security Council: A study was done by a security consultant in Miami, which showed that 70 percent of the personnel who are working on the tarmac had prior arrest records. This is not unusual in this industry around the country because of the type of work that is done and where some of these individuals are recruited.
TOM BEARDEN: But personnel problems aren't the only security issue the airlines are facing. In 1988, a bomb inside a suitcase in the cargo compartment blew up Pan Am Flight 103. It focused attention on the lack of security surrounding checked baggage. Today, on international flights, bags and passengers are matched, on the theory that a terrorist doesn't want to get blown up too, an assumption many question. Some, but not all, internationally-checked bags are x-rayed. Domestic flights are very different. There is virtually no bag matching, and checked baggage is seldom screened. And passengers' bags aren't the only items in the hold of a jetliner--there's also a great deal of air cargo and mail. A presidential commission which examined the Pan Am 103 crash issued a report in 1990 that concluded that cargo and mail presented "a huge gap in the security umbrella." The commission urged the Federal Aviation Administration to require the airlines to screen cargo just as they do carry-on bags, but the recommendation was never acted upon. Vahik Mekertichian is a freight forwarder who handles cargo at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. He's long been required to differentiate between "known" and "Unknown" shippers. Under FAA requirements, once a freight forwarder establishes a relationship with a company, they become a known shipper, and items from those companies go on passenger planes unchecked.
VAHIK MEKERTICHIAN, American Export Lines: They picked up this shipment yesterday from a known shipper, which for years we're dealing, it's an art gallery that is shipping paintings to overseas. Usually we don't open this box even those that it stays, let's say, for some period in our warehouse for a security reason but we don't go through the package, itself.
TOM BEARDEN: Because you know them very well?
VAHIK MEKERTICIAN: We know them very well.
TOM BEARDEN: Unknown shippers are treated more carefully. Mekertichian is required to randomly open and inspect their package, and under new rules that went into effect after the downing of TWA 800, Mekertichian must now ask for two forms of identification, and must keep the information on file until the shipment is delivered. But Mekertichian is the first to admit that the system is far from air tight. For example, he has no control over the cargo when it's in transit between his warehouse and the airport. And he's not an explosives expert.
TOM BEARDEN: I've seen electronic equipment in your warehouse. It was a bomb concealed inside a radio that destroyed Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Would you recognize a bomb if you saw one?
VAHIK MEKERTICIAN: If it is packed in a radio, I doubt. I cannot open, let's say a radio.
TOM BEARDEN: Nobody opens the mail either. Thousands of tons of mail are carried on passenger airplanes every year. A 1994 General Accounting Office report on aviation security pointed out that "the FAA noted that certain legal restrictions against inspecting the mail, the lack of commercial processing standards, and a history of letter bombs combine to present vulnerabilities to civil aviation security at least as great as other aspects of operations." But despite those findings and the fact that in 1979 a mail bomb aboard an American Airlines plane actually exploded, the U.S. Mail goes onto passenger planes everyday almost entirely unchecked. George Kovach works for the postal service in Denver.
GEORGE KOVACH, U.S. Postal Service: Packages that come in now are not X-rayed or checked for any suspicions at all. Only if a package is suspicious through identification as a handler handles it, it will be handed over to the Postal Inspection Service for further identification.
TOM BEARDEN: After TWA 800, the post office began requiring that packages weighing more than 16 ounces be presented in person, but shipments from businesses with postage meters are not checked, and far less than 16 ounces of plastique can destroy an airliner. Despite the new precautions, Larry Johnson thinks mail remains one of the most serious threats to aviation.
LARRY JOHNSON: And it appears that the Unabomber's bombs went through the mail, went on board passenger aircraft, and didn't detonate until they were opened at the target site.
TOM BEARDEN: So if you want to blow up an airplane, and you don't care which one, the best way to do it is to mail it?
LARRY JOHNSON: That's right. In fact, we've already seen that procedure through Ramsey Yousef, who is currently on trial in New York City for a plot to blow up 11 jumbo jets in the Pacific, as well as to kill the Pope.
TOM BEARDEN: Johnson says all these factors--lackadaisical employees, questionable background checks, and an almost complete lack of screening for baggage, cargo, and mail--add up to a terrifying picture.
TOM BEARDEN: So the bottom line is, on a domestic airplane, there is no deterrent against bombs, other than the perception that somebody might be looking, but nobody is?
LARRY JOHNSON: That's right. That is correct, and I have found that reaction of astonishment one time, sitting in a meeting of counter-terrorism experts when this point was made six years ago, and people with open mouths said you've got to be kidding.
TOM BEARDEN: The Federal Aviation Administration declined our request for an on-camera interview. They did agree to respond to written questions. The associate administrator for civil aviation security, Cathal Flynn, says it's not true that a bomb could easily be placed aboard a plane. He said, "All items transported on board a commercial passenger aircraft are subject to appropriate security and screening controls." Regarding the mail, Flynn said, "Security measures are being applied before a shipment is ever loaded into the airplane," including profiling packages. For air cargo, he said the agency had strengthened "the known shipper" concept. All cargo shippers must make a security declaration and provide proper identification. Flynn said "It should be noted that many adjustments have been made in security measures at national airports since August 1995. Each time, the adjustment is made in response to threat assessments coordinated with law enforcement and intelligence agencies." All of the private aviation security experts we talked to thought the entire aviation security system needed a fundamental reevaluation. That's exactly what the administration plans to do with the Gore Commission.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I have asked Vice President Gore to take charge of a commission to review aviation safety, security, and the pace of modernization of the air traffic control system.
TOM BEARDEN: Shortly after the TWA crash, the President established the panel, headed by the vice-president, to re-think aviation security. Elaine Kamarck is Vice President Gore's senior policy advisor.
ELAINE KAMARCK: We're doing this because, not just because there's been a series of accidents, et cetera, but we're doing this because there are fundamental changes in the industry and changes in technology which say to us that's it's probably time to take a fresh look at the way government goes about securing our airlines.
TOM BEARDEN: Republican Senator William Cohen, who sits on the Government Affairs Oversight Committee, is skeptical.
SEN. WILLIAM COHEN: What we have to do is not create more and more commissions. The Gore Commission will welcome whatever the report contains, but frankly we know what the problems are right now, and we know how to fix them right now.
TOM BEARDEN: Samuel Skinner has seen all this before. He was the Secretary of Transportation in 1988 when Pan Am 103 went down. Skinner had a front row seat when the airlines successfully opposed several proposed reforms, like installing hundreds of bomb-detection machines at major airports and running criminal background checks on people with access to sensitive areas.
SAMUEL SKINNER, Former Secretary of Transportation: Well, I don't think there's any question that the airlines decided it was not in their short term best interest to pay for these services in these situations from their own pocket, and so they made a concerted effort to make sure that the airlines didn't have to pay for this and they didn't have to charge passengers for it.
TOM BEARDEN: We were unable to obtain any direct rebuttal to these allegations from the aviation industry. The Air Transport Association, the industry's Washington-based trade group, was unable to find time over a three week period to grant us an interview. Every major U.S. airline also declined to speak with us on camera. But consultant Doug Laird, who spent most of his career working for Northwest Airlines, defends the industry. He says the carriers fought the proposals not because they were expensive but because they wouldn't work.
DOUG LAIRD: Many times those items were lobbied against because upon further examination they're not cost effective. My experience has been that the airlines want to provide good security; they want to do what is right, they want to keep the airplanes safe because, keep in mind who's flying airplanes.
TOM BEARDEN: But Skinner says the industry still has a lot of clout.
SAMUEL SKINNER: They spend a lot of money and a lot of effort influencing the activities that go on in Congress and I think they're very effective.
TOM BEARDEN: Elaine Kamarck says the airlines will be consulted but won't have a disproportionate influence on the Gore Commission.
ELAINE KAMARCK: We've stood up to interest group pressure time and again as we have reinvented government. And so by giving this task to the Vice President, what the President was saying is, let's make this a part of the way we reinvent government. And since we've got a track record there, I expect that we will have a track record on this endeavor as well.
TOM BEARDEN: Kamarck says the commission's initial recommendations will deal with bomb detection technology like the CTX-5000 x-ray scanner for checked baggage. The device has been FAA certified and is in widespread use overseas, but it's still being tested here. The Gore Commission's final report which will examine the entire government role in aviation is expected in mid 1997, assuming the President is reelected.