By Peter Slevin and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 12, 2001
For years, government watchdogs and outside experts have warned that U.S. airport security is no match for an organized terrorist organization. Loose enforcement of tarmac rules, limited background screening and a poorly paid workforce all increased the chances that a coordinated attack could succeed.
Study after study has shown that people with evil designs and the means to make trouble could board an aircraft or hide enough explosives to blow it from the sky. When Department of Transportation investigators tried to breach security at eight airports three years ago, they succeeded 68 percent of the time.
In July, the Federal Aviation Administration said it would seek $99,000 in fines from American Airlines because of lax security. Terrorists hijacked two of the airline's planes yesterday -- a Boston flight that crashed into the World Trade Center and a Dulles International Airport flight that slammed into the Pentagon.
On a single day in June 2000, the FAA said, American failed to perform a passenger identification check on two flights, hauled unaccompanied bags on five flights and failed to ask proper questions about baggage on two flights. An American spokesman called the fine "excessive" and said the problems have been fixed.
"The domestic and international aviation system has serious vulnerabilities," Keith O. Fultz, assistant comptroller general in the General Accounting Office, told Congress in 1996. "Protecting civil aviation from a terrorist attack is an urgent national issue."
There is no indication how the hijackers chose the three busy airports or the two airlines involved in yesterday's attacks. Federal investigators provided no information about how the terrorists may have breached security or transported what one passenger described in a cell-phone call as knife-like instruments. Authorities discovered one flight's "black box," which contains voice and data recordings that can provide clues to a flight's last minutes. But pilots can turn off the devices.
Some veteran pilots and aviation experts reasoned yesterday that the hijackers must have had flying experience to guide the jetliners to their targets. In a courtesy extended widely, pilots from other airlines can occupy a spare jump seat in the cockpit by showing an identification card that can be counterfeited easily.
"You show your credentials, and you look around until you find a captain who will let you go," said Clark Onstad, a former FAA chief counsel, who added that visitors can reserve the jump seat in some cases. "The pilots, most of the time, if they drive up to an employee parking lot, they have these big briefcases and they get on the bus, they go to the terminal, they are never screened."
Public studies have shown that people can slip into supposedly secure areas and onto airliners. A 1999 Department of Transportation study cited "piggybacking," the practice of slipping through a gate behind employees, as the method of entry used most often. Investigators were successful 71 of 75 times.
Logan International Airport in Boston, where two of the jetliner flights in yesterday's attacks originated, was cited for 136 security violations from 1997 to 1999. The FAA fined the Massachusetts Port Authority $178,000 for the breaches after the airport failed to screen baggage properly or restrict access to secure areas and planes.
After yesterday's attacks, the FAA ordered all aircraft grounded nationwide while it reviewed the situation and prepared for an orderly resumption of traffic under tighter security. When commercial airplanes begin flying again, more uniformed law enforcement officers will be patrolling airports and no curbside check-in will be allowed, said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. An armed marshal drawn from federal agencies will be aboard each plane.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the Appropriations Committee, said yesterday that Congress must find ways to plug security gaps involving a wide range of airport service personnel, from runway workers to food handlers. Answering significant criticism, Congress spent $550 million from 1997 to 2000 on security efforts. An additional $600 million is budgeted through 2004. Hutchison acknowledged that the systems failed.
The challenge is vast. Each day, nearly 2 million passengers depart from 460 airports controlled by the FAA. On average, 35,000 to 40,000 commercial flights take off and land -- and 4,000 to 5,000 are in the air at any one time. Planes must be moved, cleaned, fueled and supplied with food and other provisions. Passengers and luggage must be channeled and screened -- all with the clock ticking toward departure time.
"It's very easy to have someone get on a plane and wreak havoc," said Harvey W. Kushner, a Long Island University professor and terrorism consultant to several federal agencies. "The security at airports is pathetic."
The last hijacking of a plane in the United States occurred in 1991, when a California man, upset that he was forbidden to smoke during a 90-minute flight, tried to commandeer the plane by claiming to possess explosives. Testifying before Congress last year, Gerald L. Dillingham, the GAO's senior air transportation expert, spoke of a later hijacking in the Philippines that seemed to portend trouble. He said it was meant as a dry run for a simultaneous assault on U.S. airliners in Asia.
"The trend in terrorism against U.S. targets is toward large-scale incidents designed for maximum destruction, terror and media impact -- exactly what terrorists intended in a 1995 plot to blow up 12 U.S. airliners in a single day," Dillingham said. "Concerns are growing about the potential for attacks in the United States."
Dillingham criticized the FAA for failing to heed repeated warnings about airport security -- warnings sounded by two presidential commissions and numerous GAO and inspector general reports.
Security at U.S. airports is provided by a variety of agencies and private security concerns. There is no centralized federal command. When it comes to monitoring passengers and their baggage, the airlines themselves are responsible.
"I feel nothing but frustration, because the issue of who should provide airport security has been raised time and time again," said Onstad, the former FAA chief counsel. "It is the only place in America where law enforcement has been delegated to private companies: the airlines."
Onstad spoke of poorly trained and paid screeners who operate airport X-ray machines and metal detectors. It is a tedious job in which equipment designed for earlier challenges -- preventing passengers from carrying metal guns and knives -- is no match for a calculating terrorist.
"The airlines are not the 82nd Airborne," Onstad said. "They catch the insane, they catch the sloppy and they catch the ignorant, but they're not going to catch a sophisticated terrorist."
Even the newer sensing machines in some airports are only as good as their handlers.
"Testing shows that screeners do not detect as much as they should," said John Anderson, a senior GAO official who oversees transportation studies. "Very often, folks that work at the fast-food restaurants at the airports make more money than the screeners."