Safeguarding the Nation's Transportation System

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Chapter One
Safeguarding the Nation's Transportation System

The transportation system in the United States has been one of the nation's greatest resources, a vast network of airports, roadways, rail lines, and waterways that move millions of people daily and billions of dollars worth of goods each year. This free flow of people and commerce has become a hallmark of American life, helping to fuel the world's largest economy. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, however, dramatically demonstrated the vulnerability of the nation's transportation system to terrorist infiltration and attack. They also demonstrated the impact such a crisis could have on the economy and the enormous difficulties involved in trying to safeguard such a far-flung and highly accessible system.

Following the September 11 tragedy, the government took quick steps to examine the safety of the nation's transportation system and to improve security in the air, on the nation's highways, bridges, tunnels and rails, and in the country's waterways and ports. Some of the government's responses were largely symbolic, intended to restore the public's confidence. Other governmental actions targeted specific safety shortcomings. All of the new safeguards were intended to make sure terrorists could never again use the nation's transportation system as a weapon.

Changes at the Nation's Airports

Because commercial airliners were used in the 2001 attacks, the airline industry felt the biggest and most immediate impact of the government's efforts. Creating a greater law enforcement presence at the nation's airports was among the first things done. President George W. Bush asked the nation's governors to install the National Guard at airports. Many Americans for the first time saw armed soldiers patrolling civilian areas. For many, the guardsmen's presence offered reassurance in the wake of the terrorist attacks, a feeling that no one would dare hazard an attack in the midst of so much obvious security. Others, however, felt a sense of unease. For these Americans, the idea of armed soldiers at airports conjured up images of military states, not the open and free United States. The federal government paid for the deployment, which included training in airport security techniques from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The deployment of guardsmen was a temporary measure implemented while the government considered more permanent methods to bolster airport security. Just two months after the terrorist attacks, Congress approved sweeping legislation, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which created a new federal agency called the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The agency was charged with federalizing security, that is, making security the responsibility of the federal government, at the nation's 429 commercial airports. The TSA took over security operations that previously had been run by private commercial companies. It hired forty-four thousand screeners for the airports and, in an effort to attract a more qualified pool of applicants, the government offered higher pay and health benefits. The screeners also were required to undergo thorough background checks and to speak fluently in English.

In ways both subtle and striking, the heightened security made air travel vastly different for Americans than it had been prior to September 11, 2001. Today, the heightened security takes effect even before a passenger steps into the secure area of the airport.

Baggage Thoroughly Screened

All checked baggage—suitcases and other items passengers do not personally carry on to the planes—is now given a thorough screening. Screeners use a number of methods to ascertain the bags are free of explosives. Among the most common is an Explosives Detection System (EDS), a large device similar to a doctor's CAT-scan machine. Baggage is loaded onto the machine's conveyor belt, which may be

longer than twenty feet and, as the conveyor belt moves, the machine tests the molecular composition of the luggage's contents. The systems are based on the principle that explosives contain certain chemical elements in characteristic ratios and amounts that set them apart from nondangerous substances. Items placed in the machines are bombarded with neutrons. The resulting chemical reactions are analyzed by the machines to determine whether explosives are present.

Another common machine in use at airports is the Explosives Trace Detection (ETD) machine, a much smaller device. Screeners rub the surface or interior of a traveler's luggage with chemically treated swabs, which are then placed into the ETD. The machine analyzes the samples for traces of bomb residue, utilizing similar principles to the EDS. The two machines are often used in tandem; if a bag that has run through the EDS raises concerns, it is then sent for ETD testing. Screeners also make use of bomb-sniffing dogs, though the dogs tire quickly when checking large numbers of bags. Airlines also utilize hand searches at times; the government has requested that passengers keep their luggage unlocked. According to traveling tips from the TSA, "You may keep your bag locked if you choose, but TSA is not liable for damage caused to locked bags that must be opened for security purposes."2

More Intense Passenger Screening

Heightened security measures do not stop at baggage screening. Travelers themselves are subject to screening at passenger security checkpoints prior to entering the gate areas of

airports. Unlike in the past, when family and friends could accompany fliers to their gates, gate access is severely restricted. Only civilians with boarding passes and photo identification, and airport and airline employees who have valid identification cards, are allowed into the gate areas of airports. In addition, passengers and their carry-on luggage are subject to more thorough screening procedures than had been utilized in the past. Even food that passengers are munching on as they enter the secure areas must be screened: It is wrapped and run through an X-ray machine.

The first step of the security checkpoints is the X-ray machine, on which passengers are required to place all carryon luggage, coats, jackets, and sealed food items. The procedure is intended to prevent passengers from boarding planes with any items that could be used as weapons. Because the only weapons used in the September 11 hijackings were box cutters, the government has significantly expanded the list of items that are not allowed in carry-on baggage. Prohibited items range from the fairly obvious, such as guns, knives, and explosives, to seemingly innocuous items that conceivably could be used as weapons, such as metallic pointed-tip scissors, box cutters, and sporting goods ranging from baseball bats and pool cues to ski poles. Passengers then walk through a metal detector. If an alarm is triggered, a passenger is subject to additional screening, during which a hand wand—another metal detector—is swept over the passenger's body.

Screeners may also pat down certain passengers, or request that they remove their shoes, which will be checked for explosives and either X-rayed or inspected with an ETD. The government became concerned about bombs concealed in footwear on December 21, 2001, after Richard Reid, a British national who allied himself with radical Muslim terrorist groups, attempted to blow up a commercial airliner en route to the United States. Reid, who became known as the "shoe bomber," carried on board a homemade explosive concealed in his shoes. He was subdued by passengers when he tried to ignite the material and sentenced to life in prison for

attempted murder, attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction, attempted homicide, interfering with a flight crew, planting an explosive device on an airplane, attempted destruction of an aircraft, and using a destructive device in a crime of violence. Although Reid's conviction was a triumph, officials realized that further efforts had to be made to improve passenger prescreening systems.

CAPPS Analyzes Passengers

Security officials have systematic ways to pick out selected passengers for secondary screening procedures. They do this using a program known as Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS. CAPPS helps security officials isolate passengers who may pose a security threat by culling information from both public and secret government sources and comparing it against governmental profiles of terrorists. For example, the system identifies people who purchase airline tickets with cash, buy one-way tickets, or have names similar to those of known terrorists, alerting security personnel to subject such people to heightened scrutiny. CAPPS had been in operation on September 11, 2001, and actually identified six of the September 11 hijackers as potential threats. However, they were subject only to a more thorough screening of their luggage, which contained no weapons. Those now identified by CAPPS are subject to a more thorough secondary screening.

Although CAPPS has the potential to identify terrorists, it often creates problems for law-abiding passengers. A Rochester, New York, man named Asif Iqbal, for example,

was required to get clearance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) every time he flew, which he did sometimes as often as twice a week. Iqbal, a management consultant, had been singled out for scrutiny because he had the same name as a suspected terrorist. Even though that terrorism suspect was eight years younger than the Rochester man, and had been in U.S. custody at the naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002, Iqbal was detained at airports until finally receiving clearance from the FBI. Iqbal was hardly alone in his difficulties with CAPPS. Hundreds of Americans, ranging from a sixty-two-year-old grandmother to a frequent business traveler with a top-secret government security clearance, complained about being subjected to unnecessarily intense screening.

Despite such complaints, on February 28, 2003, the TSA announced that it had built an upgraded passenger prescreening system called CAPPS II. This system relies on information gathered when passengers book a flight. A passenger's full name, address, phone number, and date of birth are used to access a vast amount of personal information—including credit and financial information, criminal records, and even property tax records—and are compared against current intelligence information and threat priorities. The information is then entered into a database and used to develop a risk assessment for each passenger. According to some reports, the government plans to develop a color-coded system to indicate the level of scrutiny each passenger should receive. For example, a passenger who is coded green would be subject to normal security screening, and those coded yellow would be subject to greater scrutiny. Those coded red are considered highly likely to pose a threat to security and would effectively be barred from flying.

Privacy and civil rights advocates complain that the current CAPPS system is problematic enough and that the new system is likely to be worse. David Sobel, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center, worries about the quality of information fed into the database:"Looking ahead to the CAPPS II system, that system will likely have access to a broad pool of information that is unlikely to be completely accurate. We will see an exponential increase in the number of people who will encounter …problems."3 A person who is mistakenly labeled red will face huge obstacles in trying to clear his or her identity. Other critics worry about the implications of allowing the government to concentrate large amounts of personal information, fearing such power might be used irresponsibly.

The new and enhanced security measures already have extended the boarding process to as long as two hours. Nevertheless, most Americans have been patient and have welcomed the added security. How patient and understanding they will remain is uncertain, especially considering the TSA's proposals to beef up security throughout airports, not just at entries to airline gates.

To offset lengthy backlogs at the checkpoints, the government is examining proposals that would allow prescreened frequent travelers to enjoy expedited security screening at airports. However, some worry that such a program could actually decrease security in the long term. A General Accounting Office study noted, for example, that the TSA initially opposed the concept because "of the potential for members of 'sleeper cells'—terrorists who spend time in the United States building up a law-abiding record—to become registered travelers in order to take advantage of less stringent security screening."4 Such potential problems underscore the difficulties faced by the government as it attempts to balance security needs with the public's desire for ease of access at the nation's airports.

Safety in the Air

In addition to the vast increase in airport security, the government has instituted a variety of changes to increase safety once planes are aloft. Among the first priorities was to strengthen cockpit doors to prevent hijackers from gaining access. Prior to the September 11 attacks, most cockpit doors were relatively flimsy and could not be locked. They were designed solely to provide pilots with a quiet working environment. After the attacks, existing doors were reenforced with metal bars while improved doors were designed and produced. By early 2003, all large commercial planes flying in the United States were outfitted with lockable, bulletproof cockpit doors. The new doors are even capable of withstanding small explosions. A spokesman for the Boeing Company, maker of the new doors, claimed the improved doors were made to resist a force equal to that of a National Football League linebacker, running at the speed of an Olympic-class sprinter, before slamming into it.

Although the new doors have been hailed by supporters as a significant safety improvement, critics warn that the

doors remain vulnerable. For example, if a pilot leaves the cockpit to make a visual inspection of the plane, the cockpit remains susceptible to attack. Captain Steve Luckey, the chairman of the Air Line Pilots Association's national security committee, observed of the improved door that "it's a barrier when it's closed, it's an entry when it's open."5 Luckey and others have urged authorities to outfit airplanes with an additional bulletproof curtain to act as another barrier between the cockpits and cabins of planes. Others have argued for the installation of a second bulletproof door. Pilots would have to close one door before opening the other, reducing the vulnerability of the cockpit to attack.

The government has also increased the number of plainclothes federal air marshals on duty. Called sky marshals, these armed guards ride on selected flights and are authorized to use deadly force against hijackers. The enormous number of flights prevents the government from placing a sky marshal on every flight, but the odds have significantly increased that an armed law enforcement official is on any given flight. For security purposes, the government does not reveal the exact number of sky marshals, their identities, or the routes the marshals fly.

Many pilots believed that even these extraordinary efforts were insufficient in the face of a determined hijacking attempt, and they lobbied Congress for authorization to carry guns in the cockpit. Opponents of the idea argued that, in the event of a hijacking, pilots should focus on maintaining control of the aircraft. They also expressed concern over the possibility that pilots might inadvertently damage or incapacitate a plane through faulty shooting. Lawmakers, however, were finally won over by the pilots' argument that thousands of air travelers daily showed implicit trust in pilots simply by getting on planes. As debate raged in Congress, the Allied Pilots Association posted a petition on its website that said, "Common sense and logic dictate that the men and women we trust each day with our lives when we board an airliner can and should be trusted with firearms in order to provide the critical last line of defense."6

Sensitive to the controversy, some airlines sought to arm their pilots with nonlethal Taser stun guns. In January 2003, United Airlines and Mesa Airlines applied for approval from the TSA to allow their pilots to carry the weapons, which would incapacitate, but not kill, would-be hijackers and terrorists, and would be less likely to cause structural damage to the aircraft.

The presence of guns in the cockpit represents a change in the method pilots will now use during hijacking attempts. Prior to September 11, the standard procedure for pilots was to submit to hijackers' demands. The rationale was that, by acceding to the hijackers' requests, the lives of innocent passengers could be spared. Since the airliners themselves were used as missiles in the 2001 attacks, however, the government and pilots recognized that a much more aggressive approach was necessary in order to preserve control of the aircraft and improve the odds of survival. Indeed, in the wake of the attacks, the Defense Department authorized fighter pilots to shoot down hijacked planes, in effect sacrificing the lives of those on board to save the thousands who might be killed if the planes are flown into buildings.

Security for Ground Transportation

Though the nation's air transportation system was the most obvious area in need of improvement following the September 11 attacks, government officials and private analysts also began to examine the country's ground transportation system. As officials hypothesized potential terrorist scenarios involving ground transportation, they came to chilling conclusions. Among other things, they realized that terrorists could gain control of a hazardous shipment and drive it into a public building or otherwise use it to cause panic and commotion. Government officials also worried that terrorists could learn to drive large trucks, load them with explosives, and similarly wreak havoc.

Recognizing the danger of terrorists who might infiltrate their industry, the American Trucking Association in 2002

lobbied for the right to conduct federal government background tests on drivers, dock workers, and job applicants. Tony Chrestman, head of trucking at Ruan Transportation Management, said, "Previously, I would never have thought about anyone taking one of our loads of propane and running it into a building. There's got to be improvements to background checks."7

Such concerns appear well founded. According to a May 2002 report by the federal Department of Transportation, suspected fraud in testing and licensing commercial drivers has been identified in sixteen states. One chief concern is that terrorists could fraudulently receive a commercial driver's license and proceed to use large trucks as weapons. Government officials worked to remove the potential for abuses in commercial licensing, but conceded that monitoring fifty separate licensing entities was an enormously difficult task.

The government is likewise concerned about potential terrorist attacks on other elements of ground transportation in the United States, including infrastructure such as bridges and tunnels. Law enforcement officials increased security at key bridges and tunnels in some cities, and implemented checkpoints to investigate vehicles before they crossed these bridges or entered some tunnels. Officials hoped to reduce the chance that a terrorist would detonate an explosive on such key transit sites, causing mass casualties and snarling the transportation system for months. However, a city's—and the nation's—transportation system is so vast and easily accessible that it was considered an impossibility to safeguard everything.

Officials also worry about how to protect the nation's public transportation system. Buses and subway systems are particularly vulnerable to attack by terrorists with conventional bombs, as attacks in other countries have demonstrated, because such transportation systems are designed to be easily accessible. For example, Palestinian suicide bombers have often blown up buses in Israel, even though that country has instituted strict and widespread security measures. The Irish Republican Army frequently exploded bombs in the London Underground, the city's subway system, and on passenger trains. In 1995, a Japanese terrorist group called Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system, an attack that killed twelve people and sent thousands to hospitals.

Beyond increasing the presence of law enforcement officials in such systems, there appeared to be little the government could do to further safeguard public transportation systems from a determined terrorist attack. Amtrak, the national passenger rail service in the United States, has instituted a few new measures to protect its system, such as limiting passengers to two pieces of carry-on luggage and routine screening of all luggage. However, such requirements would be unlikely to deter a suicide bomber. Officials hope that police and other law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, will be able to apprehend these terrorists before they strike.

Protecting the Nation's Ports

Another worry spot for U.S. officials is the nation's seaports. Usually large, sprawling, and extremely busy, the ports are inviting targets for terrorists. More than seven thousand ships from around the world visit U.S. ports more than fifty thousand times a year, carrying more than 1 billion tons of goods. Consequently, an attack on any of the nation's one hundred major ports could severely cripple the economy. Moreover, the sheer volume of goods funneled through the nation's ports itself provides terrorists with ample opportunity to smuggle weapons, or themselves, into the country.

To help police the ports and prevent acts of terrorism, the U.S. Coast Guard now spends more than 50 percent of its time and effort on port security, up from the 1 to 2 percent prior to the 2001 terrorist attacks. The Coast Guard now puts sea marshals on ships as they enter ports, in order to prevent a terrorist hijacking. The guard also requires ships to

notify ports about their cargoes and crews ninety-six hours in advance of arriving, allowing agents to target some ships for heightened inspection. Helping the Coast Guard, customs agents screen more cargo than they did in the past and use X-ray and other machines to ensure that items and people are not smuggled into the United States. Customs officials also require ships to document what cargo they are carrying twenty-four hours prior to leaving a foreign port.

While the added safeguards represent an improvement in security, some analysts worry that far more needs to be done to protect against a catastrophic attack. In December 2001, Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York warned:

Our ports are a gaping hole in our national security. Terrorists have every opportunity to import and stash weapons of mass destruction—whether chemical, nuclear or biological—in shipping containers and in port's vast cargo areas and we're not doing nearly enough about it. One ship can carry thousands of truck sized containers filled with hazardous materials. Sixty eight nuclear power plants alone are located along U.S. waterways. Protecting ourselves means protecting our ports. It's that simple.8

Congress later approved funding to help ports improve security. It provided money for, among other things, small boats, cameras, and vessel-tracking devices. However, given the large size of the nation's ports and the number of ports nationwide, few believed the ports could be completely protected from terrorists.

Many Americans applauded the government's steps to improve security in the nation's transportation system. Moreover, they expressed relief that the government was doing what it could to safeguard property and lives from terrorist attacks. At the same time, others worried that complete protection from terrorism was impossible. The sheer size of the United States and its enormous transportation system make it impossible, and impractical, to make the entire transportation system terrorism-proof. Although many steps have been taken, officials continue to seek more effective means of protecting the nation's transportation system from harm.