By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 9, 2006
Police officer Steven Benner was on patrol in northern Anne Arundel County, driving his unmarked sport-utility vehicle through parking lots, climbing onto rooftops and peering down access roads that wind through wooded areas.
Suddenly, a jetliner screamed a few hundred feet overhead. That Southwest Airlines jet -- and the many other low-flying airliners here -- was the reason he was combing the area. Benner, an officer with the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, was looking for threats from shoulder-fired missiles around Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Benner said he tries to think like a terrorist. He looks for people who seem out of place, such as those parked in restricted areas who might be taking notes or photographs as reconnaissance for an attack. Sometimes he drives off the beaten path to potential launch sites. He knows it wouldn't take much to get off a shot: A missile could be fired from the back of a moving pickup truck.
"They don't do things by the book, so we can't do things by the book," Benner said, adding that he is also on the lookout for people monitoring him. "If we do this randomly and every so often, they are not going to be able to pattern police movements. I like to be a little smarter than them, a little faster than they are."
Since British police said they foiled a plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic, security authorities have focused on the threat of explosive liquids and gels. But the commercial airline industry faces a variety of threats, including bombs in cargo, hijackings and shoulder-fired missiles.
The U.S. government says shoulder-fired missiles have been used in at least 36 attacks on civilian aircraft in the past three decades, all overseas. Many security experts say the threat of attack in the United States is more remote than in other countries, particularly those in Africa and the Middle East.
Still, the possibility worries police and intelligence officials because many missiles are on the black market and many terrorist groups have them. Authorities estimate that terrorist organizations have several hundred to several thousand shoulder-fired missiles, which can cost as little as $5,000. In a report to Congress last month, the Department of Homeland Security called missile attacks a "real and international concern."
To counter the threat, the U.S. government has spent more than $100 million to develop a reliable anti-missile system to install on commercial planes. The systems, which are mounted underneath aircraft, detect missile launches and then fire laser beams at the weapon to disrupt its guidance system and send it off course. The military already uses such countermeasures on its aircraft.
The government hopes to develop systems that would cost about $1 million each for installation on thousands of jetliners. But widespread deployment of such devices on the U.S. commercial fleet would probably take at least a decade. The Department of Homeland Security is spending an additional $10 million to test different anti-missile systems, some of which could be ground-based, at airports. Most security experts say commercial jets are most vulnerable when landing or taking off because they are going relatively slow and are low to the ground.
In the absence of technological solutions, police have filled the gap. Police at Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport conduct patrols, but a spokeswoman declined to discuss security efforts in detail.
Shoulder-fired missiles are small and can fit in a large duffel bag. Some have ranges of up to three miles, and some can reach altitudes of 15,000 feet.
Most departments began the patrols after two missiles barely missed an Israeli jetliner taking off in Kenya in late 2002. A DHL cargo plane was badly damaged after being struck by a missile in Iraq a year later. In response, the U.S. military cleared a large area around Baghdad's airport, and commercial planes have taken the dramatic approach of flying over the airfield at 10,000 feet and then corkscrewing down to the runway to avoid missiles.
Maryland Transportation Authority Police officials have briefed officers on the missiles' range and effectiveness. Each officer has been given photographs of the missiles, which are known in law enforcement circles as "manpads," for man-portable air defense systems.
The photos, which include close-ups of the individual components, are displayed in the department's BWI squad room with a large map that shows "BWI Manpad Sites," nearly a dozen locations that police check at random intervals because they think they would make good launching sites.
The biggest part of the effort focuses on officers such as Benner, who on a recent afternoon spent 90 minutes checking the perimeter of the airport. He inspected the Amtrak train station for explosives and drove through parking garages to ensure that no terrorists were hiding there. He also checked school and business parking lots.
He has never confronted anyone suspected of being terrorist, but he has kicked out people picnicking in restricted areas and questioned aviation enthusiasts who gather at airports and take notes on the comings and goings of planes.
Gary W. McLhinney, chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said the patrols are one of the oldest and best tools he has to combat a potential attack. "The patrols are an important and an effective use of our resources," McLhinney said. "This is such an important issue."
Airport police have expanded their anti-missile networks by reaching out to other law enforcement organizations that patrol potential launch sites. The U.S. Park Police, which monitors many of the parks and roads along the Potomac River, has stepped up patrols because of the threat posed to planes heading to and from National Airport.
Park Police Chief Dwight E. Pettiford said the department has trained maintenance crews and park service employees to recognize those who may be attempting to launch a missile and those who may be scouting for an attack. "We have to be constantly vigilant," Pettiford said.
Police officials said they work closely with the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI to learn about threats.
When the TSA was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, security officials reached out to community associations to enlist the help of neighborhood watch groups. Scott McHugh said he pushed for such community briefings when he was the federal security director at Dulles in 2002 and 2003. He and other former federal security directors say the community meetings have dwindled and occur at only a few airports. He said TSA officials have failed to implement policies that could effectively counter the threat.
TSA spokeswoman Yolanda Clark said in an e-mail that security officials meet with community and business groups and that they work closely with local police and federal law enforcement on the issue of shoulder-fired missiles.