Counterterrorism, Whack a Mole & the industry’s soft underbelly

A British Airways employee was just convicted of plotting to blow up an airplane (click here). He had  also been told by his handlers to find out if they could get a bomb or a person with a bomb on board a flight. Fortunately, Rajib Karim was only a computer tech – he had applied for but been rejected for a flight attendant’s position, which would have given him much easier access to the plane.

Just one day after Karim’s conviction, an airport worker with possible al Qaeda ties fired on a bus of American serviceman, killing two and wounding several others.

Unfortunately, this was all predictable, but the solution to the problem is far more complex.

Some will call for screening of employees, just like passengers go through. Employee screening has been a topic of debate in the aviation industry for over 20 years, but would this have solved the problem in either case, or will it prevent future such attacks?

When the Moscow bombing happened, there was talk of relocating the screening checkpoints farther out, into the terminal entry points. But, unless you spread those checkpoints out, like they do at Dallas/Ft. Worth, you have only relocated the site of the next attack – active shooters and bombers want to blow up areas where there are lots of people. Most U.S. airports are not configured like DFW so you’re talking about millions of dollars in terminal re-design if you go this way.

If you want to know where lots of people congregate in an airport, just ask Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who today issued a statement saying that budget cuts will result in longer screening lines.

Since 1990, legislation has called for the “screening” of employees. Since 1990, the industry has defined “screening of employees” as some sort of background check. Some things have changed over time, and you will routinely see employees going through the security checkpoint, but the majority of employees at an airport legally bypass the screening areas every day. When you ask if employees are “screened,” the answer is yes – through the criminal history record check and the security threat assessment conducted on all airport and airline workers. But, most have not walked through a magnetometer before being allowed to access your plane.

It’s also not as simple as making everyone go through the existing passenger checkpoints. At some airports, you will put 10x the number of people through those checkpoints than currently go through, when you add employees to the mix.

To implement actual employee screening for all airport and airline workers runs into a gamut of challenges. First, is the infrastructure costs to redesign terminal areas to accommodate the screening equipment, then there is the additional cost of the screening equipment. Now factor in personnel costs to hire and train thousands of screeners. At the airports that do 100% actual employee screening, such as Miami and Orlando, there were opportunities during construction projects to do the necessary design changes. Their screener workforce are not TSA employees, they are private screening companies paid for by the airport operator through airport fees and revenue.

Some additional logistical challenges also arise when you decide to screen employees. What about aircraft mechanics that require tools that are on the prohibited items list? What about first responders, such as airport operations and maintenance personnel, paramedics, plus dozens of other airport and airline personnel who either must respond to an emergency, or must take quick action to avoid delays or other problems? One solution is to identify those individuals who are allowed to bypass the checkpoints, conduct higher levels of background checks and add biometric identification to airport access control systems.

BUT – what is to prevent the trusted employee from going bad, or from a bad guy becoming a trusted employee? This is not a new problem, just an old problem with a new set of consequences.

It’s well known that bad guys will put themselves into positions where it’s easier to commit their crimes. If you’re a burglar, you may try to find work as a locksmith, or contractor who has access to houses on a routine basis, or maybe even with an alarm system company. A standard mode of operation for a pedophile is to try to get a job where they have easy access to children, such as in schools or daycares. Just recently, a TSA behavior detection officer was arrested for drug smuggling (click here), and not too long ago two air marshals were arrested for drug and weapons smuggling. An airline worker was also recently arrested on charges of facilitating human trafficking.

Throughout the history of aviation some of the most significant attacks have been carried out by employees within the system, or assisted by employees. In some cases, attacks were carried out by individuals pretending to be employees. This is clearly the soft underbelly of aviation security.

What’s the solution when the trusted person, violates that trust, and the consequences are not smuggled drugs or weapons, but bombs on airplanes?

The solution is to follow the lead of those in the child care industry, but take it a step further. As a simple Sunday school teacher, I underwent a background check and was required to do training to know what was appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and to be able to spot inappropriate behaviors in others. I have to re-certify by going through the training every year. Does this process stop every single individual? No, but it stops a lot more than it used to by not doing training and background checks.

I agree that many airport and airline employees should be physically screened, but there are whole categories that should not. Trusted employees need to be (a) given a higher level of background check, beyond just fingerprints, wants and warrants, and (b) training on how to spot unusual and dangerous behavior – just like the workplace violence training programs.

Presently, the background checks required by the federal government are still not strong enough. They are far better than they were, but many local airports conduct higher levels of background checks because of the gaps in the federal process. Employees that are “trusted” such as airport police, operations and maintenance personnel, certain airline personnel, pilots and flight attendants, should undergo very thorough background checks, looking at past-history of associations and links to potential bad guys or bad organizations. I know this sounds a bit heavy but we’re allowing you unfettered access to the airport and aircraft in trade. If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about. If you don’t want that level of check, go through the checkpoint.

Additionally, all employees that receive an airport identification badge or airline ID badge should be trained in the basics of identifying workplace violence indicators, and suspicious activity. They should re-certify every year.

The good news is that since 9/11, we’ve caught a lot of bad guys and shut down a lot of operations. Perhaps terrorists aren’t as smart as they used to be because so many have been caught that al Qaeda is now recruiting a few notches down on the intellect ladder – notice how the last few terrorist attacks have resulted in guys not remembering their training in how to make a bomb go off? I think that it’s a mixture of luck, and the bad guys using dumber bad guys to try to pull off attacks, because a lot of smart guys either met their demise,went into hiding or are in custody.

Aviation security is just like Whack-a-Mole. Whenever one threat is mitigated, another one pops up. The threat of employees within the system committing terrorist and criminal acts is one that pops up frequently. We need to quit hitting the mole’s head and start working on extracting it completely, through better background checks and better training, or it will pop up again, with deadly consequences.

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One Response to Counterterrorism, Whack a Mole & the industry’s soft underbelly

  1. Jeff:
    This article touches on a concern I have as a new kid on the block. The TSA does mandate disqualifying applicants who have certain felony offenses within the past 10 years. However, I have been turning down subjects for badge approval (usally applying for work with tenants of the airport) who have a pattern of violence, thefts, and like concerns even if those occurred outside the 10 year window and even if they do not constitute felonies. I am getting some serious flack from applicants who are demanding to see something in writing from the Feds that allows such descretion. Of course, there isn’t anything. It is simply implied.

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