(Part 2 in a series examining aviation security 15 years after 9/11)

One of my favorite movies in recent years is Draft Day, starring Kevin Costner. Costner plays the General Manager of the Cleveland Browns football team, and the movie follows the wheeling and dealing that happens on the NFL’s draft day, with managers trading a combination of players, money and draft positions throughout the day. If you liked Moneyball, you’ll like Draft Day.

Anyway, this isn’t a movie review – so back to my point: in one scene near the end, Costner is making a deal and knows he has the other team’s GM backed into a corner, so he continues to ask for more. The GM protests at the added terms, then Costner tells him that they are living in a different world than just 30 seconds ago.

world-trade-center-memorial-271356_1920We just made it through the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and the usual question comes up as it does every year: Are We Safer? Numerous media outlets ran stories, both real and self-appointed security experts provided narrative, and it was even the topic of a recent Presidential debate. The problem is this: “Are we safer?” is the wrong question. There are too many variables at work. The threats we faced in 2001 are significantly different than the threats we face today. In fact, we’re living in a completely different world than we were just 15 years ago.

Since vague, indirect, and generic questions can only be answered with equally vague, indirect, and generic answers, let’s get to a specific question: Has TSA done the job it was hired to do?

TSA was created just two months after the 9/11 attacks. The overall intent of the legislation was to not just fix the problems and the gaps that the terrorists’ exploited, but to provide a complete upgrade to the entire US aviation security system – which it sorely needed. There were even some measurable goals within the legislation such as the takeover of screening checkpoints from airline contractor personnel to federal government employees, and the implementation of 100% checked baggage screening. The goals were achieved but neither in the way Congress intended nor the public expected. It is these goals we will address in this blog.

Let’s start off with the biggest misconception by addressing this often-asked question: How many terrorists has the TSA caught?

Based on all unclassified information available, the answer is zero. But that’s OK. The security screening element is not really designed to catch terrorists. Catching terrorists is the job of the FBI. In fact, if TSA actually catches a real terrorist at the checkpoint who has had no insider help, that is either a terrorist that hasn’t done their homework, or a very bold terrorist who has done their homework but decided to bet the house on a perceived vulnerability. There are also those that slip through other cracks in the system just by chance, but the thinking terrorist doesn’t rely on chance. Many are willing to die for the cause, but they don’t want to sell their life cheaply by getting caught and ending up in a federal prison the rest of their lives.

Any terrorist worth their salt will realize that the “front door” of aviation security is not the place to try an attack, irrespective of reported screening failures. The advantage of the way we do screening now is that there is an increased chance of being detected, to the point that most terrorists or bad guys will seek other methods to bomb, hijack or otherwise attack aircraft. That’s good – if the system at least convinces you that you stand a good chance of getting caught, and so you avoid trying that avenue of attack, then that layer is working to some extent. When the system becomes no longer convincing is when the layer weakens.

The screening function of TSA acts as a layer among several others that attempt to ensure you’re not getting on the plane with a bomb, gun or some other device that could cause harm. But before we get to how screening is doing, we have to spend some time in this blog to address two important questions.

If TSA isn’t supposed to catch terrorists but merely deter them, how effective have they been in deterring attacks?

From one perspective TSA may be 100% effective because we’ve not had a major terrorist attack on aviation like we had on 9/11, since 9/11. The attacks that were near-misses in our industry, like shoe bomber attack (December 2001) and the underwear bomber (December 2009 – seeing a pattern here yet?), were bombs brought in from non-US airports (Paris and Amsterdam, respectively). Since TSA doesn’t do screening at those airports we can’t pin the blame on the TSA for those guys getting past security with bombs. And in the first case (shoe bomber), TSA hadn’t even been in business for a month.

However, what we cannot accurately measure is deterrence. It is difficult to determine how many terrorist attacks have been deterred, aborted, called off or not even made it past the planning stages due to the elements in the system that are designed to deter and prevent terrorist activities. It’s no easier to calculate how many people have not robbed your house in the past 10 years due to your deterrent measures, and then determine which security procedure deterred them – was it leaving your porch light on, locking your doors, that phony alarm system sign in your yard, or your real alarm system?

It’s difficult to predict with any sort of accuracy, how many terrorist attacks were deterred due to existing security measures – the bad guys unfortunately don’t call us after the fact and tell us what layers are working and which ones aren’t. In theory, the answer to the question about how many terrorist attacks have TSA and other security measures implemented after 9/11 deterred, the answer is “all of them – so far.” But using that standard is also inaccurate: on September 10, 2001 we could have said the same thing about the aviation security system back then. And then the next day terrorists used highly exploitable weaknesses in the system to kill nearly 3,000 people.

So what’s the good news?

The good news is that the system is far better than it used to be – in terms of preventing the types of attacks that occurred on 9/11 – and it’s much better at preventing existing threats. The good news is that we’ve made it a much harder system to penetrate than the sieve it was before 9/11. The good news is that besides TSA, there are numerous local, state and federal agencies involved in protecting the US air transportation system.

The bad news is that the game has no end. The rules and the tactics continue to change, and sometimes we end up losing a round before we figure out the new rulebook.

(In the next part of the series: a look at screening.)




To read more of my posts on aviation security, click HERE.

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