Jewish World Review Oct. 24, 2001 / 7 Mar-Cheshvan 5762
Instead of squabbling about whether the people scanning carry-on bags at airports should be federal employees, Congress ought to be worried about what one expert calls "the soft underbelly" of airline security - the cargo holds of airliners.
The probability of other Sept. 11-style suicide hijackings is low - thanks as much to passenger vigilance as government action - but it's still all too possible for terrorists to plant explosives in checked baggage and blow up airliners in flight.
That's because, despite Congress' appropriation of $440 million for explosive- detection devices, only a small percentage of bags are actually checked.
"I was stunned at how low the percentage is," said Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation. One witness before the panel put the number at just 5 percent.
Planes have already been blown up in flight. In 1988 terrorists killed 270 people aboard Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, with explosives stowed in checked luggage.
That case caused bag matching to be ordered on all international flights - that is, a passenger's bags are automatically removed if he doesn't board his flight.
But as the Los Angeles Times reported Oct. 16, two years ago the Federal Aviation Administration rejected a White House commission's proposal for bag checking on domestic flights, bowing to airline industry objections that the procedure would be too costly and inconvenient.
Bag matching is in force for all flights leaving from Reagan National Airport. An extensive 1997 study by the FAA found that using the procedure for all domestic flights would delay flights by an average of seven minutes and cost 40 cents per passenger.
Bag matching, however, wouldn't prevent the danger - now obviously real - of a suicide bomber loading his suitcases with explosives, getting on a plane and dying along with other passengers.
This too is an idea that has occurred to Osama bin Laden. As The Washington Post reported Sept. 21, Philippine intelligence uncovered a plot in 1995 to fly a plane into CIA headquarters - and also to simultaneously blow up 11 U.S. airliners in flight.
The terrorists involved, including Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, were later convicted of perpetrating the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
According to Mica, after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Congress appropriated $440 million to purchase explosive-detection equipment for airports, at a cost of $1 million each.
Six years later, however, only 140 such machines have been deployed at 50 U.S. airports, and not all of them are being used, according to testimony by the FAA's inspector general, Kenneth Mead.
Mead told Mica's subcommittee that airlines have not used their baggage scanners to full capacity, even since Sept. 11, because this might delay flights.
The Senate-passed airline security bill called for 100 percent scanning of checked baggage, and it's also likely to be in the House version.
The FAA's administrator, Jane Garvey, implicitly acknowledged in a speech to the National Press Club last week that her agency had been slow to implement Congress' last mandate on explosive devices.
"In today's world," she said, "we must accelerate the program. The goal for all of us must be 100 percent screening of every checked bag.
"The great challenge is how rapidly the screening equipment can be produced. I can tell you that every machine that is produced will be deployed immediately."
Garvey declined to say when that goal could be met. Witnesses told Mica it might be 15 years. Mica told me that an added problem is that explosives are being developed that current bag-screening machines can't detect.
Until this problem is solved, the answer should be - sorry to say - profiling. The checked baggage of young Middle Eastern men must be opened and examined.
If, for reasons of political correctness, the airlines want to mask the profiling by opening up the bags of other people as well - say every 10th person - that would be OK.
According to Mica, House debate on the airline security bill is likely to be held up, as was Senate action, by a partisan quarrel over making some 28,000 screeners federal employees.
Mica argues that screeners should meet strict federal standards, but if more people are put on the federal payroll, they ought to be FBI agents, U.S. marshals, Coast Guard personnel and Border Patrol agents.
President Bush favors tight federal oversight and reminds us - and this is the clincher for me - that it's almost impossible to fire civil servants, even if they are incompetent.
It ought to be urgent business to close the door as firmly as possible on terrorists' use of airplanes. Bin Laden's spokesman, Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, has been threatening that we'll see a continuing "storm of airplanes." It may be propaganda. It may not be.
I'm troubled by what MIT aviation expert Arnold Barnett told the L.A. Times: "Terrorism is forever changing its form. The question is, What is the next one going to be like? We're doing so much to secure the cockpit. It would be terrible if we left the cargo compartment as the soft underbelly." Congress should be troubled too.