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FAA: A Failure On Aviation Security

USAF Gen. (ret.) John Michael Loh was the service's vice chief of staff in 1990-91, then commander of the Air Combat Command until 1995. He served on the Gore commission on aviation safety and security and wrote this Viewpoint with Gerald Kauvar, its staff director.

One battlefield in America's war on terrorism surely will include White House or congressional commissions, to make recommendations on how to improve civil aviation security. It won't be the first time. The last time such a commission was charged with that function was after the TWA Flight 800 tragedy in which 230 passengers and crewmembers were killed on July 17, 1996. Reviewing the history of the recommendations made by that commission is both timely and instructive. Had those recommendations been implemented within the spirit and intent of the commission, the plans to attack on Sept. 11 might have been detected well before they occurred.

Immediately following the explosion on board TWA 800, President Bill Clinton chartered, and Vice President Al Gore chaired, the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security. The President directed the commission to focus first on the issue of security because early indications (later ruled out) pointed to a terrorist's bomb as the cause. We delivered our final report to the President on Feb. 12, 1997. Most of our recommendations dealt directly with airport and airline security. The President accepted all of the recommendations and directed the FAA, through the Transportation secretary, to implement them. Few of the recommendations have been fully put into practice. The remainder have either not been implemented at all, or only partially, and with no significant impact on security.

Our most sweeping recommendation was to treat aviation security as a national security issue, not just an airport problem. We called for greatly increased collaboration among the CIA, FBI, FAA, INS, and airport and airline security officials to provide timely information about suspected terrorists. Two of the terrorists in the Sept. 11 attacks were on the FBI's watch list. The attacks may have been prevented had this information been disseminated to the FAA and aviation security officials when it went to the FBI. None of the agencies has implemented this recommendation.

We recommended that the FAA deploy a rigorous and thorough system of passenger profiling to detect possible terrorists. Some airlines use modest profiling systems, but an integrated, industry-wide profiling system that respects the ethnic and national origins of passengers, yet sends warning signals when anomalies occur, has not been put into use.

Several of the terrorists bought one-way tickets and paid for them in cash to travel to their destinations. The profiling system we envisioned would have raised red flags in these cases, requiring the terrorists to face additional questions when they arrived at the airports. Most likely, other actions and movements of the terrorists in the months prior to the attacks would have triggered adverse profiles. Again, the FAA failed to put in place a profiling system that could have prevented these attacks.

We urged that all airline, airport and screening personnel having access to an airport's secure area undergo criminal background checks. There are suggestions that accomplices who had jobs in airports and airlines may have assisted the terrorists. They might have been weeded out with background checks. Yet again, the FAA failed to implement this recommendation.

We further recommended that the FAA work with industry to develop a national program to increase the professionalism of screeners and endorsed a proposal for an independent corporation to handle airport security. The FAA has yet to publish a rule on screener professionalism and has done nothing to create an entity for the screening process.

The commission also urged that the FAA develop better means to ensure the physical security of aircraft and access to the controlled area of airports. The FAA has only partially met the intent of this recommendation.

In sum, the FAA has failed to carry out the major recommendations regarding aviation security. Our commission required "that the Secretary of Transportation report publicly each year on the implementation status of these recommendations." There has been no report since 1998. The Transportation Dept.'s inspector general has repeatedly documented the FAA's inadequacies in background checks and airport access controls. To be sure, this failure to perform cannot be laid entirely on the doorstep of the FAA. After all, the FAA has bosses and overseers in the executive and legislative branches, Transportation secretary and oversight committees of Congress. Clearly, there have been lapses in their functions as well. But the major failure is one of leadership at all levels of the FAA.

The FAA, and others, may well offer many reasons why the recommendations have not been put into practice. But, in light of the attacks on Sept. 11, they would all ring hollow.

The TWA 800 accident was indeed tragic, so much so that it produced a presidential commission. But once that tragedy was ruled an accident--not a terrorist attack--the sense of urgency passed. The FAA returned to business as usual, the commission's recommendations on security all but ignored. That should serve as a warning--and a lesson--to those about to embark on new commissions with new recommendations.

October 8, 2001 The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.

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