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Washington Post Magazine: The Flight Watchmen

The Watch Floor at the Freedom Center. Data from more than 450 federalized airports and 19,000 general aviation airfields feed into the center.
The Watch Floor at the Freedom Center. Data from more than 450 federalized airports and 19,000 general aviation airfields feed into the center. (Hector Emanuel)

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Laura Blumenfeld
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008; 12:00 PM

Since 9/11, counterterrorism officials have had to rethink how to keep the nation safe. That mission has put the men and women of the Freedom Center on alert 24/7.

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Washington Post Magazine staff writer Laura Blumenfeld was online Monday, June 23 to discuss her cover story, "The Flight Watchmen."

Blumenfeld has covered national politics, counter-terrorism and the Middle East for the Washington Post. Her non-fiction book Revenge: A Story of Hope, has been translated into eight languages.

A transcript follows.

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Laura Blumenfeld: Hi there!

I'm Laura Blumenfeld, Washington Post Staff Writer. Thanks for joining us to chat today.

Happy to answer questions about my Washington Post Magazine story, "The Flight Watchmen."

3...2..1.. Take off!

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Kahului, Maui: Thank you for sharing such a wonderful glimpse of the human side of the Department.

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks! This is my first chat in six years, so I appreciate the gentle question.

I thought it might be interesting to spend time inside a threat center, to see what life is like for people whose job it is to worry.

How do you live with the stress?

It took almost a year -- from start to finish -- to report this article. DHS was wary, and negotiations went on for seasons...

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Washington, D.C.: I was talking about this article with a friend who is an Obama supporter. He said under DHS, there may not be TSA or this watch center because civil liberties, civil rights and freedom of speech will be more important to the liberals than fighting terrorism...

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks, that's interesting. I'd like to hear more on that subject from Barack Obama, yes?

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Maryland: Which watch center is it you profiled? There were three DHS centers described in this GAO report.

Laura Blumenfeld: I profiled the Freedom Center, which had previously been known as the "TSOC"-- the transportation security operations center.

As I mentioned, negotiations were a little touchy with DHS. It took a few visits to a few different watch centers in the Washington area before I was given access to the Watch Floor in northern Virginia.

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Washington, D.C.: Do those people live as paranoid and unpleasant a life as it seems like they do?

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks, interesting question. I think the watchmen do not see their lives as paranoid or unpleasant. They feel like they are contributing to America's security. They work hard, are stressed to the max, but feel good about their mission.

Readers may love, loathe, admire or pity them -- based on their own attitudes and experiences.

Some people emailed me and said, "Wow! True American heroes!" Other folks said they seemed scary.

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Spring, Texas: This is a great story and as an airline employee it is reassuring to know Homeland Security is keeping an eye on things.

How hard was it for you to get the sources and access to do this story?

Laura Blumenfeld: Oh my goodness. In seventeen years of reporting for the Post, I have rarely had such a hard time getting access!

Many of the security officials felt like no good could come of this.

Every time I went out on the Watch Floor, red lights in every corner of the room began flashing, to warn the watchmen, "DANGER! INTRUDER! Put away all classified material!"

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Knoxville, Tenn.: I'm sure you'll get some incendiary questions on this line in the story, so I'll try to be balanced -- I don't really get the "possibly Muslim" line.

Two questions jumped to mind. First, How do they make the determination that someone is "possibly Muslim"? Second, do any Muslims -- or even people with training in Middle Eastern culture -- work at the Freedom Center?

Laura Blumenfeld: Excellent, important question. I lobbed it over to DHS Spokesman Greg Alter, who said:

"Religion is not a factor in our security determinations. While specifics are not available; the Freedom Center indeed has a diverse workforce."

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Harrisburg, Pa.: When I was reading the list of people stopped at airports and who were viewed as suspicious passengers: I got the feeling most of these were drunks and idiots and not terrorists. Maybe this is a question that can't or shouldn't be answered, but how many people who turn out to actually belong to terrorist organizations are actually stopped from boarding an airplane? As an aside, do any of the rules that airports use actually thwart terrorists? I recall the time I watched an airport employee close the doors in front of people running to board an airplane and then explain to the people that closing the doors precisely at ten minutes before boarding was part of the fight against terrorists. I remember thinking to myself: does anyone actually think terrorists don't know to board an airplane ten minutes before takeoff?

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks! Another good one for the DHS spokesman, Greg Alter, to answer:

"We use layers of security to ensure the security of the travelling public and the Nation's transportation system. Because of their visibility to the public, we are most associated with the airport checkpoints that our Transportation Security Officers operate."

"These checkpoints, however, constitute only one security layer of the many in place to protect aviation. Others include intelligence gathering and analysis, checking passenger manifests against watch lists, random canine team searches at airports, federal air marshals, federal flight deck officers and more security measures both visible and invisible to the public."

"Each one of these layers alone is capable of stopping a terrorist attack. In combination their security value is multiplied, creating a much stronger, formidable system. A terrorist who has to overcome multiple security layers in order to carry out an attack is more likely to be pre-empted, deterred, or to fail during the attempt."

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Falls Church, Va.: I assume the location of the center(s) is secret? Was there any concern that, by identifying the personnel and the location of their homes, that it would be easy enough to follow one to work one day to find out where they are?

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks Falls Church -- The location of the center is secret, but only sort of.

Newspapers have published the location before. We wrote "northern Virginia," because that was part of the ground rules for doing the story.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: What are the backgrounds of the people who are involved in this sort of work?

Laura Blumenfeld: Many of the watchmen come from police, military, government service. Some are former airline pilots.

For many it is a second career. What seemed interesting to me was that many were in their forties, or older. I thought of them as "the mid-life watchmen." Working the Floor was a second chance to achieve their dreams.

One guy had been a secret service agent in the 1960s and had a bad knee from the time he felling while jogging along-side LBJ's motorcade. He had a tumor in his hand and other health problems, but the former agent came to work each day to serve, and that gave him a sense of purpose.

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Rockville, Md.: For many decades thousands of people have died by becoming trapped above completely burning floors of a high rise buildings. This entrapment was specifically induced by terrorists on 9/11 at the WTC towers - twice. These zealots only need a matchstick and not a plane to cause another one. Why then the focus on airport security alone?

Laura Blumenfeld: The Watch Floor monitors terrorist threats across eight modes of transportation: mass transit, bridges, railways, vehicles and roads, pipelines, postal and cargo shipping, maritime matters and ports, as well as aviation.

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Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Is there objective evidence that these furious counter terrorism efforts have made a difference? The personal sacrifices of the Federal counterterrorism employees are real, but "The Flight Watchman" did not indicate whether the USA is at greater risk of devastation from a large meteor, a class 5 hurricane, or terrorist plotters.

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks, great question. Here's Greg Alter from TSA (part of DHS) to answer it:

"Stated simply, the threat to commercial aviation is very real; unfortunately, but for good reason, the basis for this is largely classified."

"There should be no doubt that the dedicated efforts of TSA and all are security partners make travelling today safer than its ever been."

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Cornelius (Charlotte), N.C.: I loved the story, but then again, I'm sort of a geek for this type of thing/subject. I'm former Navy and I hope some of the people you profiled in the story are reading (or going to read) these posts/questions. I don't really have a question, but rather, a comment: To Chuck Phucas, your country needs now now more than ever Marine!! Keep up the good work you're doing... ALL of you.

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks, N.C.

As I said, readers were really divided about how they felt about the characters in this story.

I wonder if it's a reflection of our unresolved national debate on counter-terrorism methods?

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Scared in Alexandria: The Freedom Center "watchmen" seemed to be really, really unsophisticated. The remarks they made seemed straight out of a farm - a bunch of red-state, wannabe-FBI agents who flunked the written test!

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks for your comment. And thanks for helping me make my point: This is the kind of story that touches nerves. Sorry I got on yours!

Either "The Flight Watchmen" makes you feel better or, it makes you mad.

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Virginia: I re-read your article 3 times today. I wondered how are we gonna fight terrorism without being discriminatory????

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks, here's Greg Alter again, from TSA, to respond:

"Racial and/or religious profiling does not work and is not a part of TSA's security strategy. Our strategy is based on behaviors and other unbiased facts."

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University Park, Md.: Thanks for the enlightening article. It's comforting to know that, somewhere, rational people are making decisions based on what happens at checkpoints and on aircraft. The surly security checkers and morass of seemingly meaningless rules are all most of us usually see of TSA's efforts.

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks, that's an interesting response. Now look at the next reader comment I will publish. They seem to have taken the opposite message from the piece --

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Alexandria, Va.: Thanks so much for this story.

The comments, quotes, implications, and nuances from the TSA people offer up the slightly scary impression that, no, the TSA people don't really understand what business travel is. They seem to think that flying is all about planning a family vacation to Disney World a year in advance - plenty of time to use or kill, no cares, no computer, no cell phone.

That's just unrealistic, and it contributes to the completely unreasonable, excessive, low-sophistication, low-common-sense, low-rent approach TSA is perceived to take.

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks, I wonder if you and the guy whose comment I just pulished before yours, could get together and debate this??

You read the same piece, but took opposite messages from it. Fascinating, yes?

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Madison, Wis: Responding to the McCain staffer identified as "Washington, D.C.," Senator Obama favors actually increasing the scope of our nation's vigilance against terrorist attacks, http://www.barackobama.com/issues/homeland/

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks!

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Arlington, Va.: The "flashing red lights" are a staple of any office that deals with classified information. They indicate that someone who doesn't have a security clearance is in the room.

I can't believe the Post would let me walk unescorted around your newsroom. Same principle, higher stakes.

Laura Blumenfeld: It depends. Who are you?

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Arlington, Va.: I'm curious how much all this security costs. TSA costs something like $6 billion a year, but a lot of what you are describing is elsewhere in DHS. Any ideas?

Laura Blumenfeld: Here's what TSA spokesman Greg Alter said:

"Sorry, I don't have specific budget figures readily available."

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Washington, D.C.: Laura: during your interviews for this article, did any of the subjects express any sense of irony about calling their surveillance facility the "Freedom Center?"

Laura Blumenfeld: Nope!

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Virginia: Why are DHS officials calling themselves counterterrorists? They are anti-terrorists. Counterterrorism mean being overseas out of the station in the embassy chasing the terrorists using "illegal" means.

Laura Blumenfeld: Any experts out there care to respond?

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Knoxville, Tenn.: Thanks so much for going to the spokesman for a response to my question!

I guess I just have trouble believing that religion plays 'no role' in their thought process. When I read that, in that short chance to describe the suspected terrorist, his 'possible' religion was one of the three things used to characterize him, I just think it really speaks volumes about the difference between the reality on the floor of the watch room and in the executive suites of DHS.

Thanks for a thought-provoking piece all-around.

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks Knoxville, wishing you safe travels!

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Alexandria, Virginia: Do you really believe that jets crashed into the twin towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001? If so, why do all the crash videos into the south tower look like a cartoon in slow motion. In the CNN video it was necessary to make the twin towers taller so the crash could be seen despite a foreground building. See http://ghostplane.blogspot.com/ In the helicopter shot, the nose of the plane came out the other side of the building for .28 seconds before the screen went blank. Download http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9FAWi_u1hg&NR=1

Furthermore, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics records every departure and landing of every airliner in America. On 9/11/2001, however, it never recorded the departure of flights AA 11 and AA 77, which supposedly struck the north tower and the Pentagon. See http://www.serendipity.li/wot/aa_flts/aa_flts.htm http://www.bts.gov/xml/ontimesummarystatistics/src/dstat/OntimeSummaryDepaturesData.xml http://www.911forum.org.uk/archive/dialoguewithholmgren.htm

If you want proof that war on terror is based entirely on lies straight out of 1984, check my home page at http://tinyurl.com/6s9qdq

Laura Blumenfeld: Free country...

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Silver Spring, Md. - novels about computer programming: I've done a lot of study and work on air travel security while working as a Beltway bandit. I found the article extremely reassuring - it proves there is the kind of coordination that was lacking back when I did the (internal) studies.

Yay.

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks!

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Fairfax County, Virginia: As a longtime Washington area resident (grew up in Maryland suburbs, live now in Virginia suburbs) I like any fresh writing approach that shows a real picture of federal employees doing the public good under real pressure. To me, it wasn't about their particular mission although I admit a story on a group of GSA clerks might not have the same pizzazz (though they may be just as dedicated--and paid far less).

Have you considered using the same ultrapersonal angle on the CDC next, or the (hopefully somewhat) new and improved FEMA or the Coast Guard? Nebulous classified threats aren't really up there with Hanta virus and the current flood disasters. Now THOSE are stories where we don't have to trust that lives are being saved.

Laura Blumenfeld: Thanks, that's a great idea

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Charlottesville, Va.: Your photo of the watch floor appears to show a very crowded working environment that may contribute to the job stress. Is that look of chaos by design to facilitate quick verbal communication amongst the employees? or is it just the camera angle/lens that gives it a crowded look? Otherwise a larger facility may be in order.

Laura Blumenfeld: Hmmm... it's about as crowded as The Washington Post newsroom, except we don't have the nice, high ceilings...

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Just pointing out: The TSA guy said: "Our strategy is based on behaviors and other unbiased facts." so I would assume that if the data show that Muslims (or Buddhists or Freedonians) commit more terrorism the sensible thing to do is keep a watch on them. The trick is picking out the Freedonians.

Laura Blumenfeld: Yes, this is a tricky, touchy area.

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Laura Blumenfeld: Signing off for now. Thanks for the chat.

Hope you enjoy your summer vacations, and as you set off in planes, or boats or trains, just know -- the Watchmen are watching...

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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