In a recent column I stated that on 9/11 the only part of our air travel security net that functioned properly was the airport security system. The deluge of email noting that I was obviously demented was noteworthy.
I am not demented. Nor am I ignorant. Just misunderstood.
I’ll say it again: “As the realities of 9/11 sink in, nine months later, America is learning that perhaps the only portion of our security net that functioned as designed was the airport security system.”
Let explain something about security systems.
Before you change channels, let me tell you that I am perhaps the only travel columnist who has ever had the responsibility of guarding a front-line nuclear weapons site. Yes, hard to believe, I had the direct on-the-ground, on-the-perimeter responsibility of guarding scores of nuclear warheads in Germany.
The first thing anyone learns about security, is that real security does not exist only at the site one is protecting. In the case of nuclear weapons in Europe in the aftermath of the Munich Olympic abductions, our security network was comprised of many systems and many organizations.
I was responsible for layering my site security. Directly surrounding our site I deployed movement sensors in ravines. We blanketed a clear zone with powerful lights. Regularly, we sent out patrols through the surrounding forest. We had double-barbed-wire fences constructed and had guard towers manned 24 hours a day. Emergency generators were installed for backup power. Guards stood at their posts with chambered rounds in their weapons. We practiced emergency response with a small immediate action team that could deploy instantly and with a larger force that could deploy within three minutes.
Even with all those precautions, I knew that it might be impossible to keep the bad guys out of the site. In case they penetrated our security, we were poised to keep them inside the site to insure that a nuclear weapon could not be kidnapped. In those days, our security was real. The threat of Arab terrorists making such an attempt was very credible.
I did not sit at the “special weapons site” in the middle of a remote German forest alone. I was only the last line of defense against fanatic terrorists–the last part of a security net. The government had the CIA, Army Intelligence, German Intelligence, local police and nearby military police all involved in overall web of security.
If an enemy managed to get to the chain link fences of my nuclear weapons site, they would have to work their way through multiple layers of security. Taking into account the active security net, it was almost impossible to imagine an attack against our site. But we had to be prepared for just such an event.
Our job was to make stealing or kidnapping a nuclear weapon as difficult as possible, hopefully impossible. That was our mission. That was the focus of my life for almost two years.
We had an overall mission.
Airport security on 9/11 was similar. One of the last defenses against hijacking was the airport security system. It was designed to keep weapons used in the past off aircraft.
Yes, I know that many of you feel the system was a joke. Yes, I know that there were plenty of test infiltrations with weapons that succeeded. But on 9/11 the hijackers all boarded their planes with no illegal weapons. Believe me, not one of the hijackers one wanted to queer the deal. They wanted no problems. In fact, we now know that all the hijackers practiced going through security dozens of times to insure that they broke no laws and that there would be no delays.
That is all that any chief of security can ask of their system. They want a barrier that forces the bad guys to practice and take their time and allow you to stop them through other methods.
Unfortunately, the rest of the security system was asleep at the switch or not communicating with each other. On board the aircraft, at that time, the dictated non-confrontational response to hijackers also played into the terrorists’ plans. The events of 9/11 were not made possible by an airport security failure. They are the result of an intelligence failure on a massive scale and our national failure to recognize the real-world possibility of hijackers using an aircraft as a weapon rather than only as a platform for demands and publicity.
I am certain that the pilot that turned the plane toward New York City was certain that he was going to land the plane at LaGuardia, the heart of the world’s media and communications.
Today, there is much sound and fury about airport security. It is something that people can easily see, something that makes the masses feel that the government is hard at work. Unfortunately, it is an extremely expensive sham. The age of hijackings is over. The next attack will be far different.
We are spending billions on security minions we don’t need, and making travel more and more difficult for the public, which is adding to the financial pressures on the airlines.
Real airport security through explosives detection and layers of security are being held hostage by a bloated and bickering bureaucracy. Everyone has an idea about how to reorganize our intelligence systems, but everyone seems to feel that only their idea is correct. Our Senators and Congressmen are good at giving speeches but criminal in their political maneuvering that waylays real security.
A large part of deterrence is appearance. And there, we are woefully lacking. Between political grandstanding, newspaper editorials and articles detailing the difficulties in new technologies, the bad guys must be chuckling as they make future plans.
Installed explosives detection machinery is underutilized, new machines are slow coming online, and the TSA continues to drag it feet approving overall airport security plans.
As a country, we need to be boldly moving forward on a real wartime footing at least let’s project that image.