Los Angeles Airport (LAX) is considered one of the nation’s top terrorist targets due to its economic significance and high volume of passenger traffic. Since LAX accommodates an average of 61 million passengers and more than two million tons of freight every year, it is considered the world’s fifth-busiest airport by passenger traffic and eleventh-busiest by cargo traffic. LAX has direct flights to North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Oceania, and the Middle East – more direct flights than any other airport in the world.
This has made LAX a prime target for terror attacks. Three of the four planes involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were originally headed for Los Angeles. American Airlines Flight 11, and United Airlines Flight 175, were from Logan International Airport, in Boston, Massachusetts, and American Airlines Flight 77 was from Washington Dulles International Airport, in Dulles, Virginia.
During the Millenium holiday in 2000, Al-Qaeda attempted to bomb LAX, although the bomber, Ahmed Ressam, was apprehended in Port Angeles, Washington, with a cache of explosives in the trunk of his rented car. Ressam, also known as the Millenium Bomber, transported the explosives from Victoria, British Columbia, aboard the ferry “Coho”. Ahmed Ressam was sentenced to 22 years in prison on July 27, 2005, in a blow to the prosecutors, who were seeking a sentence of at least 35 years. Judge John C. Coughenour of Federal District Court in Seattle felt the lesser sentence was justified because of Ressam’s “cooperation” with the government – even though, after being given 3 months to reconsider his decision to stop cooperating with the prosecutors, Ressam still refused to do so. The Millenium Bomber was also convicted in France for terrorism-related charges and will be sought by the authorities there after his release.
Following the attempt to bomb Northwest flight 253, on January 4, 2010 Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association, urged the implementation of full-body scanners at the nation’s airports. LAX is one of 19 airports where the technology is being tested. According to McClain, the machines are currently being used during secondary screening of the passengers. He also stated that the next generation imaging equipment is necessary because terrorists have turned to using devices with little or no metal.
Michael Chertoff, who co-authored the Patriot Act and served as former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under the Bush administration, now works as a security consultant for companies making screening devices that can identify explosives hidden under clothing. Not surprisingly, Chertoff urged that such machines be deployed more widely. These controversial devices are opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union and privacy advocates, since those utilizing the so-called “microwave” technology that is now being used in Dutch airports, would show the image of the passenger’s naked body to the TSA screener.
On December 25, 2010, a device containing PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) was used in a failed attempt to bomb Northwest flight 253. McClain said that this incident is a solemn reminder of the need for proactive airport security at U.S. airports, especially at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which has been long considered Al Quaeda’s top target. Sen. Charles Schumer called on airlines to stop servicing foreign airports with security practices that don’t measure up to American standards, imposing penalties on countries whose airports that don’t comply with US security regulations. Shumer said, “You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to realize that flights that originate in foreign countries pose a greater danger. There’s a perfect storm for airport security overseas. Lax security checks, complacent government officials, and terrorists who exploit them. There’s been some time and effort spent trying to close those loopholes but the Christmas Day terror attempt must be a wake up call to show that much more needs to be done.”
Schumer also wants the State Department to review all travel visas for anyone whose name has been added to terrorist databases. Since the Christmas Day attack, airports have made moves to bolster security — but there have already been some major lapses and these problems are not new. Report by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) demonstrated that LAX screeners missed about 75% of simulated explosives and bomb parts that TSA testers hid under their clothes or in carry-on bags at checkpoints.
The failure rates at the LAX stunned security experts. “That’s a huge cause for concern,” said Clark Kent Ervin, the Homeland Security Department’s former Inspector General. However, former TSA Spokeswoman, Ellen Howe, said “We want to have higher failure rates because it shows that we’re raising the bar and the tests are harder.” Aviation-security consultant Rich Roth expressed concern that high failure rates may encourage terrorists to bring explosives on airplanes. “The terrorist will think he’s got a very small chance of getting caught,” Roth said. On January 5, 2010, Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa concluded that the collaboration and innovation at LAX continue to make the airport a leader in safety and security (in spite of missing 75% of simulated explosives carried through the check points by TSA testers). By comparison, TSA report shows that San Francisco International Airport screeners, who work for a private company instead of the TSA, did a lot better and missed only about 20% of the bombs.
In her last post before leaving her position as the TSA Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, Ellen Howe wrote, “TSA interacts with two million people a day, and of that number, only a tiny fraction present a potential threat…Less frequent travelers said that they still think about 9/11 every time they fly. They worry about feeling stupid at the checkpoint for not knowing all the rules and getting barked at by officers and other passengers.”
Transportation Security Administration is a prime example of bureaucratic ineptitude. Since 2002, TSA has spent more than $795 million on new air-passenger screening technologies. After spending these resources 8 years ago, TSA has not deployed the technology and isn’t even sure any of the 10 new systems can address the greatest threats. According to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), there may not be any security benefits from any of these technologies any time soon, since not a single new screening technology has been fully implemented nationwide. GAO auditors also found that TSA doesn’t even have “reasonable assurance that technologies will perform as intended.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General also documented serious security failures, with respect to the screening of passengers and luggage, as well as inadequate tracking of airport security passes and uniforms of former employees. GAO testers were able to sneak low-yield detonators, explosives and incendiary devices onto planes.
Despite TSA’s dubious performance history, the response from Congress remains inadequate. One pending House bill would actually give collective-bargaining power to failing airport screeners. By unionizing the TSA, more protections would be available to the screeners by lowering standards for removal for those failing the tests. More than 50% of the TSA staff failed the agency’s latest skills test.
It should also be noted that several TSA agents working at the LAX were recently captured on videotape, using illicit drugs. Only one of these TSA agents, who tested positive for narcotics, was fired earlier this month. The use of illicit drugs by the TSA agents, whether on or off duty, is certainly not encouraging, especially in light of already lax security at the LAX and other major airports.
Two years ago, airport security concerns prompted Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to sign an agreement during his trip to Israel, providing for periodic reviews of anti-terrorist measures at the LAX by Israeli national security experts. Israel is serious about security, but are we as serious? We don’t hear of anyone being held accountable (demoted, terminated, or prosecuted), for the security lapses that jeopardize national security. To the contrary, lives and careers of government whistleblowers who point out the problems are being routinely destroyed, in an attempt to hide security shortcomings from American public.
Our security as a nation continues to be jeopardized by the government’s well-known tendency of retaliating against national security whistleblowers, instead of correcting the problems they pinpoint. Adding to that problem is the fact that our law enforcement agencies continue to look at each other with suspicion and hostility, ensuring lack of intra-agency intelligence sharing – again highlighted by the Christmas Day terror attempt.
President Obama acknowledged this problem in his Statement on Security Failures Report, admitting that “our government failed to connect the dots in a way that would have prevented a known terrorist from boarding a plane for America.” Al Quaeda claimed responsibility for the plot by releasing the following statement, “He managed to penetrate all devices and modern advanced technology and security checkpoints in international airports bravely without fear of death,” adding that in doing so Abdulmutallab was “defying the large myth of American and international intelligence, and exposing how fragile they are, bringing their nose to the ground, and making them regret all what they spent on security technology.”
In the wake the 9/11 attack, Americans understandably demand increased protection from airline terror, while also willingly participating in the restriction of freedom and reduction of privacy for the sake of heightened security. But in spite of our sacrifices and the millions spent for new security measures, security lapses continue to happen. Track record of the private screening companies suggests they may be a better solution than the TSA. Whistleblower laws don’t provide adequate protection for national security lamp lighters, discouraging government employees from coming forward with their reports of fraud, waste and abuse.
Vigilant law enforcement officers are also afraid of being accused of the profiling, to the extent that many choose to ignore their suspicions about members of a protected group. Prime example of that is the fact that the outrageous behavior exhibited by the Ft. Hood shooter prior to the incident, was ignored by the Army chain of command. Much like they did on board of the Northwest flight 253, average American citizens need to ensure that serious changes take place, by being proactive and making sure that our interests are truly being represented by the politicians. In speaking of keeping politicians accountable for their actions, H.G. Wells said, “It is not reasonable that those who gamble with men’s lives should not stake their own.”