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Securing the Airports

The notion of airport security is a bit of a riddle, almost a contradiction in terms. On one hand, by virtue of their design and purpose, airports invite millions of people a day to pass through quickly and virtually anonymously. On the other hand, airports must keep out those who would use them and the planes they service to unleash deadly chaos. That's what happened here at Boston's Logan Airport last September when Mohammad Atta and nine other men slipped easily into the morning routine and boarded two jets that shattered the World Trade Center towers -- and the nation's sense of security. Now, the job of resurrecting Logan's reputation is the hands of people like Thomas Kinton, Director of Aviation at Massport.

The challenge here is to do security in a very effective and efficient way and allow the free enterprise system to continue to work.

The most visible change here at Logan and at airports across the country are the security checkpoints. Longer lines, thorough bag checks, even routine inspections of shoes are all everyday practices in the post 9/11 world. But Kinton says new security measures from the airport perimeter to the boarding gates are also part of a new defensive posture.

So it's no longer a single line of defense if you will, going to have to go through. There is a lot of depth to the security process where a traveler is not aware necessarily of how many checks he or she is going to have to go through

Logan is experimenting with new technologies including fingerprint sensors, facial recognition systems and handheld computers to verify employee identification, track terrorist suspects, and deter criminal trespass. And the airport has hired Rafi Ron, an Israeli aviation security expert. Ron cuts an elegant profile in his dark suit, but he is blunt about the current state of security at Logan.

To tell you if we have reached where we want to be, the answer is "not yet."

Ron says American airports can become secure again. The key, he says, is passenger profiling, or what he prefers to call "behavior pattern recognition."

You have to look at all aspects of security, part of which is looking at the passenger, the person: who he is, where he is, where he is coming from, where he is going, how did he prepare for the flight. You have to make a distinction between who your enemies are and who they are not and focus on your enemies and not waste your time on the legitimate American passenger.

Aggressive profiling raises concerns that passengers will be harassed based on their race or nationality. But Ron says a passenger's background is only significant when it relates to other factors that raise suspicion.

Once you know how legitimate people at the airport behave, and you understand the illegitimate person, you can realize the differences and you can try and trigger out individuals to behave in a way that would expose their intentions.

Ron is helping to train state police at Logan in profiling as part of a new anti-terrorist unit. He says random checks are a waste of time and an unnecessary hassle for the public. And he's concerned that nationally too much energy is being devoted to searching for objects instead of people. Indeed the government's priority is to beef up security checkpoints and install bomb detection equipment in all airports to screen all checked bags by the end of the year, a deadline many airport directors say they can't achieve. Again, Rafi Ron:

Today, most of the public discussion is focused on technology and very little if at all is focused on looking at the passengers' background.


There's been as many or more failures of profiling as there have been successes, so clearly we cannot rely on that as a primary means.

Paul Hudson is skeptical. Hudson directs the Aviation Consumer Action Project and says there was a profiling system in place last September and it failed.

Nineteen hijackers went through the system within an hour on 9/11, even though supposedly nine were flagged by the existing profile.

Hudson lost his daughter in the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerby, Scotland. He says random passenger screening is essential, if only to close at least partially the hole left by an imperfect profiling system. And he says technology can do a lot.

The last time we had a major change in aviation security was in 1970.

That's when X-ray machines and metal detectors were installed at U.S. airports to confront a rash of hijackings to Cuba.

Most people said it wouldn't work. Once those systems went in, hijacking went down by 90 percent. And within a couple of years, it was virtually unknown in the United States. So to say that defensive measures cannot work is is historically inaccurate.

Hudson believes the best security system is a layered system that includes better technology, more air marshals, fortified cockpit doors, armed pilots, and so on. Back at Logan Airport Israeli security expert Rafi Ron agrees, but he says it's important not to become obsessed with preventing the last attack.

After 9/11 the discussion focused on the screeners, when the screeners had nothing to do with 9/11, which raises the question… you know the most money we're spending is on this program to federalize the screeners.

Really. You have to run a balanced system. If you focus on one side of it and not on the rest of it, then you are loosing the game.

Well before September 11th there was growing concern about the vulnerability of America's airline industry, including a General Accounting Office report two years ago that warned that airport security screeners, hired at minimum wage by the airlines, were under-qualified, badly paid, and poorly trained. The events of last September finally prompted Washington to act and assume responsibility for security at the nation's 429 airports.

ANNOUNCEMENT: For security reasons, please do not accept any packages or luggage that do not belong to you

This is a glimpse into the future of airport security. Baltimore-Washington International, or BWI, is the first airport to have a fully federalized security staff.

What they came up with is a more controlled environment in the security checkpoint.

John White, BWI's Director of Communications, says the new federal Transportation Security Administration brought in its so called "TSA Go Team," which included experts on security, conflict resolution, customer relations, even an expert on how best to line up.

The first thing you'll notice as you approach the checkpoint here at Pier C is the test site. It is a new line configuration that resembles an amusement partk ride. Disney had one of their consultants working on the TSA Go Team.

So thanks to the marketers of Mickey, Minny, and Goofy an orderly, serpentine line of passengers shuffles beneath full-colored video monitors that flash a menu of new security rules. The screeners are courteous and efficient, dressed smartly in dark trousers and crisp white shirts with shoulder patches that bear an eagle and the stars and stripes. Passengers like Debbie Harab and Dennis Livingston from Oklahoma welcome the new measures.

Well, it's a whole lot different, but it's required unless you want your plane slammed up agaist a building.

BROOKS: So you feel pretty good that this is improving security?

It's a hassle but it's worth it. I think they're handling it fairly responsibly.

I'm fine with the waiting, I'd rather be safe than have something happen. It's not too bad.

Now that security is no longer in the hands of the airlines, the new federal workers are better paid, and better trained. But staffing the nation's 429 airports will require 30,000 workers, a daunting challenge, already falling behind schedule and costing more than expected, and more than a few critics doubt that this adds up to better security.

My impression is that we're just creating another facade of security, and we are spending one heck of a lot of money.

This is Steve Elson, a former FAA security expert. Elson used to probe the nation's airports for weaknesses and he found many. He routinely carried fake knives, guns, and bombs through the security checkpoints, and the screeners rarely found them. He's a former Navy Seal, with a compact, muscular build to show for it. He says the threat of another attack is probably low now, not because of improved security, but because of the way terrorists operate.

Terrorists are special operation forces. One of the key elements for a small force is the element of surprise. Well, to use a common phrase, "they done done that." And what terrorists know from watching the media is that passengers will get up and beat the hell out of them, and their chances of taking over a plane are very remote. So while I think security is worse, the threat's lower.

Elson has pulled a baseball cap low over his brow and prowls outside Terminal C at BWI like a cat stalking a bird.

Let me see what we can see over here...

He points to the curbside check in counter and an unattended baggage cart loaded with checked bags.

The carts are wide open. They are easily accessible by anybody. So, it would be very easy to remove a bag, already tagged, take that bag over to your van, go into the van, take of that tag, put it onto a bag with an explosive, set it down on the cart, and you've got a bomb into the system.

Elson believes too much effort is being spent on the appearance of security and too little on common sense. He says in this case a simple screen made of duct tape and crate paper to conceal the bag cart would dramatically improve security and deter terrorists.

But don't make it easy for them!

Inside the terminal, Elson reveals other vulnerabilities, including the new, improved checkpoints. He says the obvious problem is that their procedures and schedules are exposed to everyone from the casual observer to the potential terrorist.

If you watch something long enough you will find those weaknesses, so that's what we're looking for.

BROOKS: Should they be thinking about these checkpoints and setting them up in ways that are not so easily observed?

Bless you, You remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, they decided to go running out the door, and there's 50,000 Bolivians. If you can't see what the hell's going on, how do you plan against it. See if they had done that with Mohammed Atta… They know he looked. He took pictures of the plane, he looked at the airport, he did exactly what we're doing, which any idiot can figure out except for the TSA, and you can quote me on that.


When you go to put it in the X-ray how are you going to put the bag. Like that.

This is how Elson used to test security screeners for the FAA. A lead-lined, X-ray-resistant film pouch tucked in a bag. The pouch contains film, but the security screeners won't know that unless they check it.

What they should do is stop the bag, open it up, take this out, make sure it has nothing untoward in there. That could have been a pistol.

At the check point the screeners carefully examine my recording equipment bag, but the bag with the film pouch - it goes through without a look. Again, Steve Elson.

That's the country's federalized showcase. Unfortunately he missed a lead film shell bag which could have contained a 32 caliber pistol. I had some wires and different things they should have looked at. They didn't. We could have gotten a grenade in, a bomb in. So besides looking good with the neat emblem, what's changed?

We had set up an interview with officials at the Transportation Security Administration to ask them that and other questions, but at the last minute they cancelled, and then failed to respond to several requests to comment about what we saw at BWI. Robert Poole, a security expert with the libertarian Reason Foundation is worried about what he sees. Poole faults Congress for establishing a costly bureaucracy focused almost exclusively on preventing a repeat of September 11th. In the meantime, other potential terrorist targets, from seaports and ship containers to the air cargo system, are being neglected.

And while it's completely understandable reaction, it's incredibly boneheaded, because there are always going to be limited resources and there's the vast number of possible threats, and possible soft targets throughout our society. We've got to take a measured approach, beefing up the weakest links and not go completely overboard on one particular area because it was used once before.

But Congressmen Peter Defazio, a Democrat from Oregon, says the need for a federal takeover of aviation security was long overdue.

We did a hearing, and the airline screener of the year came in and said you know "nobody can afford to work in this job." He said, it is the lowest rung on the ladder on the way up airport to getting to MacDonald's or Burger King, or cleaning airplanes. Aviation is the bottom, bottom, bottom rung. That's what the airlines are buying prior to 9/11. We've changed all that.

But Defazio concedes we're at the start of a long and uncertain transition. Back at Boston's Logan Airport, Israeli security expert Rafi Ron agrees and says it will take not months but years to redesign a system to protect American aviation in a new age of terror.

Pre 9-11 the general perception of the threat was that there isn't one, especially when it comes to domestic aviation. Now, that has changed dramatically, and people are asking themselves the question, "how far have we gone down the road dealing with this problem, and I say that we have gone a long way, but there's still a ways to go.