Airport Security
Problems leaden up to the September 11th attacks
The 9/11 Commission studied many aspects leading up to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and in 2006 issued a 816 page report detailing the attacks, the failings of American security, and recommendations on how to proceed. What the commission found was almost as appalling as the terror attacks themselves: the glaring lack of security and communication between agencies that allowed the terrorists to board their flights virtually undetected.

1. The focus of the Department of Transportation(DOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration(FAA) was on explosives, not suicide hijackers. For example, a 1996 report on aviation and security chaired by Vice President Al Gore did not even mention the possibility of a suicide hijacking. Furthermore, the word "suicide" does not even appear once in the 30,028 word report. Click here to read the official report submitted to President Clinton.

2.The FAA's 40-person committee on intelligence was supposed to receive information on a broad range of topics from the FBI and CIA so they could make judgments on security issues at airports. As another horrific example of lack of communication, in 1998, the FBI investigated the use of flight training schools by terrorists, and in 2001 warned of radical MIddle Eastern terrorists attending flight schools in America. The first time the FAA ever heard about this information was after the September 11th attacks.

3. FAA director Jane Garvey and her top deputies did not routinely view daily intelligence to assess terror threats at airports. Although Garvey and her deputies had the authority to take dramatic action, since they rarely viewed the reports, they were unaware of the hijacking threats on 9/11/01. Those below Garvey who were aware of intelligence on hijackings, had no authority to act and thus the threats went uncommunicated to the individuals who could have acted.

4. As of 9/11/01, only 12 terrorists were on the FAA's "no fly" list, a list that would prevented those who posed a direct threat from ever boarding a plane. At the same time, the State Department had a list of over 60,000 individuals who never should have boarded a plane, but the list was never communicated to the FAA.

5. Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System(CAAPS) was a system that was used to assist airport security as of the September 11th terror attacks. However, it only screened passengers who checked bags. Additionally, if a passenger checked a bag and if that passenger were selected by the system, the only scrutiny the passenger would undergo would be to check the bag for explosives or hold the bag off the plane until the passenger boarded. Both of these facts underly the glaring failure in focus; the FAA was focused on stopping explosives, not suicide hijackers.

6. Checkpoints that used x-ray machines were ineffective in the sense that they routinely missed obvious items when tested, and the most dangerous items were rarely detected.

7. The type of weapons used by many of the 9/11 hijackers were allowed at the time. As of 9/11/01, the FAA allowed knives with blades under 4 inches long. There was a proposal in 1993 to ban such items, but it was decided by the FAA that they would be hard to detect and there would be too many false alarms that would increase travel time.

8. Random searches by those passengers setting off metal detectors rarely stopped any problems as it was found that the items, such as small knives, were typically given back to the passenger.

9. According to the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation, there was pressure from air carriers keep security costs down and to "limit the impact of security requirements on aviation operations so that the industry could con central on its primary mission of moving passengers and aircraft..."

10. The final layer of security, airplane personnel, were not designed on any level to deal with suicide hijackers. Typical training in a hijacking situation included: accommodate the demands, get the plane to land safely, let law enforcement/military handle the hijacking. Airline staff had no training on dealing with violence on the plane, nor did their training apply when the 9/11 hijackers issued no demands.

11. At the time of the attacks, there were only 33 armed and trained air marshals who could have more effectively dealt with the attackers. In addition, the air marshals were rarely employed on domestic flights.

Post 9/11 airport security updates
1. Prior to the attacks, private companies handled security at airports. On November 19th, 2001, President Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which gave the federal government control of airport security. The result was the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to handle security of passengers at airports.

2. Responsiveness: The TSA has been responsive to threats immediately as the occur.
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For example, when Richard Reid(above left) tried to board a plane with explosives in his shoes on December 22nd 2001, the TSA responded. Passengers are now required to remove their shoes during screening. In 2006, people were restricted to only carrying liquids on the plane in small containers in plastic bags after the British government helped uncover a plot(above center) that involved liquid explosives. On Christmas Day in 2009, Umar Abdulmutallab(above right) unsuccessfully attempted to set off plastic explosives that were hidden in his underwear. The quick response was the government spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop imaging systems that could see underneath clothing.

3. No-fly list: The TSA now has access to the FBI's list that helps keep dangerous people off of planes.

4. Close monitoring of carry on bags: Many items that could be used as weapons that were previously allowed are now banned (ex: scissors). Any passenger who carries on a liquid or gel (ex: bottled water, lotion, toothpaste) has to pass the 3-1-1 test: the liquid is in a container that is 3 ounces or less, and is packaged in a 1-quart plastic bag with a zip top. Each passenger is allowed one of these bags. Items with remote controls(even children's toys) now receive extra scrutiny as they uncovered intelligence that terrorists were considering utilizing such items to detonate explosives.

5. Proactive: The TSA and federal government have been more proactive in preventing a terrorist attack rather than reactive after one occurs. For example, on December 17, 2004, President Bush signed into law the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which, in addition to other changes, required the TSA to ban butane lighters from all flights. On March 31, 2005, the US became the only country in the world to ban all lighters from carry on bags. After suspicious items looking like modified printer cartridges are uncovered on a cargo plane in October of 2010, the TSA requires that cargo planes will now be under scrutiny just as passengers planes are.

6. Pat down procedures: In November 2010, the new procedures were required of all airports and airlines in an effort to prohibit dangerous passengers from boarding flights. This change is undoubtedly the security update that has caused the most discussion. In response to passenger complaints, in December of 2010, the TSA installed 500 advanced-imaging-technology unites at airports across America. The idea was to keep the careful monitoring of what passengers might be smuggling onto a plane under their clothes, but to minimize or eliminate physical contact.

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7. Vision: John Pistole, head of the TSA, envisions a future that simplifies the steps of identifying threats. One of those measure might be a "trusted traveler" program that would allow frequent travelers much quicker boarding. Additionally, the advanced-imaging-techology units(above left) are being developed to continue to identify dangerous items hidden underneath an individual's clothing while highlighting their existence on a generic outline(above right) of a person rather than a scanned image of the actual passenger.

Success: On average, there are 1.8 million flights per day, 12.5 million per week, 50 million per month and 625 million per year in America. With no successful terrorist attacks since the September 11th, 2001 attacks, officials responsible can point to these achievements as progress towards safe air travel in the United States.

Air Force Defense Preparedness
Before the September 11th attacks
spaceIn 1958, in the middle of the Cold War, the United States Air Force had 5,800 aircraft on full alert, ready at a moment's notice to respond to any Soviet aircraft carrying nuclear weapons towards the coasts of the United States. Although the time period where the US needs fighter jets loaded with nuclear-tipped missiles may be a part of history, threats to national security are not. Over the following decades, the number of fighter jets ready for flight waned as the Cold War came to a conclusion. By 1994, NORAD(North American Aerospace Defense Command still had over 180 aircraft spread across 14 American cities ready to defend our borders if called upon. By September 11th, 2001, however, the United States air defense did not have many options to protect the targets of the terrorists. Two Boeing F-15s were standing ready on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and two Lockheed Martin F-16s were called upon from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Both sets of plans arrived after the terrorists had crashed planes into their targets. With only four fighter jets fueled and standing ready on September 11th, 2001, the terrorist attacks were a clear indication that the air defense system along the East Coast left the United States exceedingly vulnerable to an air attack.

Updates since 2001
spaceDespite not being ready a decade ago, the United States defense system has responded. Currently, the Air Force has units on five bases from New Jersey all the way south to Florida. Additionally, five units of planes are stationed on the West Coast to stop attacks from the Pacific. Eight more units cover the northern and southern borders which bring the total number of armed and ready military personnel ready to respond to a national crisis at over 1,100. One of the units, the 176th FS, is stationed at Truax Field Air National Guard Base in Madison, Wisconsin.

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aF-16C fighter jets flying over Madison, Wisconsin in 2008

Despite the success the U.S. government has had in preventing terrorist attacks since 2001, controversy exists around some of the methods the TSA has used to achieve the results.

1. Enhanced patdowns
a. In April of 2011, a 6-year old girl in was chosen by TSA screening for enhanced scrutiny. Although Selena Drexel, the girl's mother, asked for alternatives such as a rescanning, the TSA employee stated a patdown was necessary. View the video below, and read a follow up article from Good Morning America here.

b. On June 18th, 2011, TSA security in Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport in Florida patted down a 95-year old woman. The patdown included the forcible removal of her adult diaper. At the time the woman, who was suffering in the final stages of leukemia, stated that although the officials might have been following procedure, the procedure needed to be changed. Click here for the full story.

2. In August of 2009, Nick George(below), an Arabic language student, was traveling from Philadelphia to California to begin his senior year at Pomona College. George was a physics major, but was considering a career as a U.S. diplomat to the Middle East. He had 200 Arabic-English flashcards with him, some which contained words such as "bomb" or "terrorist" because he was trying to read more current events news in Arabic. George was detained for 4.5 hours, half of it was spent in handcuffs.
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3. No fly list: American citizens can be stuck on the list without any real chance to get off of it. Sometimes, they aren't told why they are on the list. Abe Mashal, a Muslim Marine Corps veteran who received an honorable discharge from the Marines, is currently a dog trainer. He emailed an imam for advice about raising children in an interfaith household; Marshal is Muslim, his wife is Christian. Since, unbeknownst to Marshal, the FBI was monitoring the imam, the former Marine was put on the no fly list. For seven months, Marshal did not know why he was on the list. According to Marshal, the FBI eventually told him the only way he could get off the list would be to become an undercover informant at area mosques. Marshal refused.

4. In May of 2012, a Muslim family was pulled off of a Jet Blue flight because, according to WPBF television in West Palm Beach, Florida, their 18-month old baby was on the no-fly list. Although the TSA corrected the story by stating the baby was not on the list, they admitted the airport employee made a mistake. The family was allowed to re-board the plane after being held off for 30 minutes, but they declined due to being embarrassed in front of the other passengers.

Discussion Questions
1. How far should a government go to protect its people?