Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The “system worked” or did it?

The walk out to the end of the driveway this morning was a bit chilly; thermometer read -10 degrees Fahrenheit. The Christmas break found the area covered in a blanket of snow. On one of our outside excursions to the park, the depth of the snow was just below the knee cap. While the Christmas break brought many gatherings of cheer, family and friends a disturbing story was taking shape. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab boarded a plane destined to Detroit with a surprise in his underwear. The 23-year old Nigerian man's attempt to blow up Northwest airlines plane, with 278 passengers, was thwarted when his device malfunctioned. The first reaction by the Obama Administration was for Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was to state on CNN's "State of the Union' last Saturday that, "no suggestion that [the suspect] was improperly screened" and that the "system worked". Really, the system worked?

Mr. Abdulmutallab successfully brought on board Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) hidden inside a condom that was stored in his underwear. Also, Mr. Abdulmutallab brought on board a syringe filled with a liquid that is believe to be glycol-based liquid explosive. Yet Secretary Napolitano believed, until yesterday, that the system worked. According to James Crippin, an explosive expert from Colorado, and other law enforcement officials said "modern airport screening machines could have detected the chemical" (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/12/27/national/main6028366.shtml?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Morning%2BBell). The types of detection devices airports are able to use are "puffer" machines, bomb-sniffing dogs, and hands-on searches but none of these, at least not yet reported, were used as Mr. Abdulmutallab made his way through security to board the airliner. Another interesting point is that the father warned the United States embassy in Nigeria about his son in November of this year.

For those that have flown since 9/11 have seen many changes in airport security which include removing shoes, placing laptops in the bin, having a photo I.D., and not allowing non-passengers to see loved ones off or greet them at the gate. While many of these changes make sense, the question raised is at what cost to our freedoms? In other countries, like Israel, profiling is done to detect potential terror activities. Profiling has become a dirty word in the United States in recent years because of abuse. The Israeli security personnel do not question everyone that travels through their El Al terminals but they do signal out a certain profile which includes "Arabs and certain foreigners" for "intense grilling" (http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2001/09/12/israelisecurity.htm). Can profiling help? Does profiling go against the core of freedom? What degree of freedom must be relented to ensure safety in the air?

These are all questions with no clear answer when it comes to balancing freedoms vs. safety and often evoke emotional response rather than rational ones. The TSA announced on their website, "As a result of this incident, TSA has worked with airline and law enforcement authorities, as well as federal, state, local, and international partners to put additional security measures in place to ensure aviation security remains strong" (http://www.tsa.gov/press/happenings/dec25_guidance.shtm). Secretary Napolitano said in a statement, http://www.tsa.gov/press/happenings/northwest_statement.shtm, "I am grateful to the passengers and crew aboard Northwest Flight 253 who reacted quickly and heroically to an incident that could have had tragic results. The Department of Homeland Security immediately put additional screening measures into place – for all domestic and international flights – to ensure the continued safety of the traveling public." If the system worked then why the additional need?

The TSA has updated their list of what one can and cannot bring on board: http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/prohibited/permitted-prohibited-items.shtm. The question still remains at what level are Americans will to give up their freedom for safety. On some flights it was reported that people were not allowed to have anything in their laps during the final hour of the flight and that pilots are no longer allowed to alert passengers of major landmarks. While I do not think we need armed guards as one will see when traveling internationally but something needs to be done to ensure safety. Otherwise one can expect to be required to be at the airport 4-5 hours prior to boarding.