Will We Ever Be Safe Again?

Boarding a jumbo aircraft with a weapon is shockingly easy, as anyone who has packed a Swiss Army knife into his carry-on knows. Slipping onto an unguarded plane is a cinch, as federal agents conducting security checks have shown time and again--including at Boston's Logan Airport, where they smuggled pipe bombs and guns aboard planes in recent tests. The nation's vulnerability extends beyond threats from the skies, however. Packing yourself with Semtex to blow up hundreds of commuters at a train station... dropping a bomb into a stadium... releasing nerve gas at a packed concert: in a world where 767s can turn into guided missiles, nothing seems impossible, ludicrous--or, worst of all, even preventable. In a 2000 report, Congress's General Accounting Office concluded that "the threat of terrorism against the United States is an ever-present danger."

Maybe now we'll listen. Protecting America from terrorism requires dramatic changes that will make the end of curbside check-in look like a Band-Aid on an amputation. Most experts in the suddenly hot field of "homeland defense" are, not surprisingly, focusing on airports, which "have the security of a Laundromat," says aviation consultant Mike Boyd. The U.S. Department of Transportation found, in a 1999 field test, that agents lacking proper IDs easily entered off-limits areas nearly 120 times and often boarded planes unchallenged: they walked through checkpoints or card-access doors behind a bona fide airport worker, drove through unguarded gates or strolled unchallenged into "secure" areas. At Logan a 1999 investigation found terminal doors propped open, giving anyone access to tarmacs and planes. Passengers debarking on a tarmac have managed to "miss" the shuttle bus, wandering freely around parked and open planes. "For ground workers, cleaners and caterers there is no security whatsoever," a veteran pilot for a major domestic carrier told NEWSWEEK. "Put the word out," said another: two days after the terror attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration was "still letting caterers on the aircraft without going through security."

Besides plugging that hole, airports should fingerprint ground workers and conduct thorough criminal background checks, say security experts. Run security checks on vendors, too, and search vehicles: it's pointless to keep a terrorist from carrying aboard a gun if the catering-truck driver can stow one among the beef stews. "No airport can be made totally secure," says Boyd. "But [the terror attacks] show that the FAA's security programs are lethally worthless. The FAA has blood on its hands."

Technology can also help. The FAA has (finally) banned knives from planes but seems to be depending on the honor system: ceramic knives (like one called a CIA Letter Opener that--yes--you can buy on the Web) elude detectors now in use. State-of-the-art electronic machines can detect nonmetal weapons and plastic and regular explosives, but airlines--citing the risk of boarding delays--rarely use them. Cost of installing the machines in every airport: about $26 billion. Checked baggage, like carry-ons, should be X-rayed. And passenger screening clearly needs to get serious: a 1998 FAA test found that agents easily slipped through security with guns under a belt buckle (when a wand check beeped at the midriff, the guard assumed the cause was the buckle). It's ridiculously easy to shield one item with another in a carry-on bag; thorough hand searches are long overdue. While they're at it, the FAA can ban carry-on liquids: some nerve agents look like water.

At airport check-in, document inspection should be handled by trained security personnel, not the lady who asks if you prefer aisle or window. At El Al, Israel's national airline, security teams conduct extensive passenger interviews that make our "Did you pack your own bags?" seem laughable. It is high time to make document checks, ramp access, baggage screening and every other aspect of airport security a federal responsibility, not airports' and airlines': using low-paid, inexperienced contract workers (who regularly confess that they can't tell or don't care what the mystery object on the X-ray is) is a prescription for more disasters. A source tells NEWSWEEK that a bill federalizing such security is likely to be introduced in Congress this week.

Security must extend beyond the gate. Every El Al flight carries at least one armed undercover security guard. The FAA won't reveal numbers, but it reportedly has only a few dozen sky marshals for 10,000 daily commercial flights. El Al also uses armored cockpit doors. New cockpit technology might offer protection, too. An automatic pilot that guides an in-trouble plane to a landing at the nearest airport could have averted last week's horrors.

In their wake, profiling is probably back. The Feds have long pushed airlines to ask tough, detailed questions of passengers, also as El Al does. Under CAPPS (Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System), security personnel look for suspicious purchasing patterns (gleaned from credit-card data) and itineraries (like open tickets). San Francisco International is now adopting CAPPS. "I think we're going to have to collect, store and sift a lot more information than in the past," says security expert Gary Richter of Sandia National Lab. "You could then look at a passenger manifest and see that you have a high number of Middle Eastern Muslims. With flight training. Who very rarely fly. You'd see this is anomalous. You wouldn't pull them off, but you'd put an extra marshal onboard." Profiling and data collection raise profound civil-liberties and privacy issues, of course. "I think it would be a tragic irony if [in the name of security] we gave up the very freedoms we are trying to protect as a nation," says antiterrorism scholar Steven Block of Stanford University. "It would be the ultimate victory for terrorists if they succeed in transforming our society from free and open to closed and paranoid."

America excels at fighting the last war, so after the Oklahoma City bombing, concrete barriers that deter truck bombs became standard landscaping for many public buildings. Access control through metal detectors, X-ray inspection of parcels and biometric ID of fingertips and retinas are also in wide use, says Jim Francis of the security firm Kroll Inc. But terrorists always find new ways and new targets, so antiterrorism must extend beyond office buildings and airports. A big concern is public gatherings. At San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, director Bill Wilson says, "if you look suspicious in any way, we're going to pat you down. You won't be able to take much if anything inside the stadium. No water. No backpacks. And if you bring binoculars, we're going to look inside them." At last year's Super Bowl, cops used roaming cameras to compare fans' faces against a database of mug shots. Visionics Corp.'s technology analyzes 80 points on a face and compares the face to a database of 1 million others in less than a second, says CEO Joseph Atick. The $30,000 system, being tested in Tampa, Fla., and Virginia Beach, might have prevented last week's tragedies, he says, and would be invaluable at sporting events or crowded downtown areas. There are still bugs, though: face-recognition systems can be fooled by beards, glasses, heavy makeup and other disguises. And of course they work only if the bad guy is in the database.

Wilson is also considering making Qualcomm's airspace a no-fly zone. "I don't want all these airplanes and blimps overhead," he said. Last week the FAA imposed a "temporary flight restriction" at "major" sporting events, banning most air traffic for three to five miles around and 2,500 feet up. The Salt Lake City Organizing Committee is requesting no-fly zones over the city during the Olympics' opening and closing ceremonies next February. Of course, the Pentagon's airspace was closed, too. To enforce such a policy, you need to be ready to scramble jets to intercept, or bring down, violators. "The final play is, yeah, you shoot it down," says retired Army Maj. Gen. Don Edwards. The obvious hitch is that humans make mistakes. A plane that a CIA team identified as a possible drug-trafficking flight and shot down in Peru in April turned out to be carrying an innocent missionary family.

Inevitably, and perhaps mercifully, our sense of horror fades over time. When it does, we will likely chafe at extra hours for airport check-in, resent bans on coolers at football games. "Other things become important, such as getting to destinations quickly and cheaply," says security expert Kurt Zorn of Indiana University. "I'm afraid we will move back to complacency." Still, the accepted balance between security and civil liberties will likely change after last week's terrorism. Body searches of every passenger taking public transport or entering a public building? A national fingerprint-and-DNA database with samples taken at birth (or upon arrival on our shores)? With images of the attacks last week still searing, many air passengers welcome tighter security. "[They] can do what they need to," says small-business owner Rob Wyse of Cleveland. "I don't care about frisking and baggage checks and my so-called rights being potentially violated." Jeff Christian, CEO of an executive search firm, says, "You go to some places and see guys in flak jackets holding machine guns, and you think, 'Whoa, this is scary.' Now you think, 'Whoa, maybe that's not so bad'." Whatever changes come, however, to believe that we can make this "Fortress America" is to live in a fool's paradise. "If even totalitarian countries cannot eliminate terrorism, we have to be realistic that an open democratic society can't either," says Bruce Hoffman of Rand Corp. But surely we can do better than we did last Tuesday.

Federalize airport security; $6-an-hour jobs with more than 100 percent annual turnover are hardly a recipe for sky safety.

Subject all ground workers to background checks and fingerprinting.

Eliminate the unsupervised access to planes and cargo that ground workers and errant passengers now have.

Have trained security personnel conduct extensive questioning of random passengers as well as those matching suspicious profiles, as Israel's El Al airline does.

Install flight controls that automatically land planes at the nearest airfield in case of emergency.

Minimize carry-ons, and ban clear liquids (some nerve agents look like water).

Position UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) 90,000 feet above coastlines to sense cruise missiles.

Rebuild the air-defense network to scramble jet interceptors when suspicious planes are detected.

Consider no-fly zones over large stadiums and high-profile outdoor gatherings.

Use face-scanning technology to match faces in crowds to databases of terrorists.

Check all cargo manifest, and run random checks of trucks.