Another Enemy Within - Agency Turf Fights

Remember back to a few short days following 9/11?

We were frightened, by what had happened and by what might happen. Only the brave and the foolish were flying commercial aircraft. People avoided high buildings, and often each other - especially when a person looked "suspicious."

I remember a conversation with a tenant in an apartment house I own. He is young, of Arabic extraction, a secular Muslim (like a non-practicing Catholic), studying medicine. I asked him how things were going for him personally following the attack. He said things were a bit tense, but that he really didn't mind. According to my tenant, he would rather be checked five times as much as his Anglo friends if this would help catch another bad guy.

My friend took no offense at all; he welcomed the intrusion as proof that somebody was doing something positive.

In summary, what are these positive things that we have been doing, have been trying to do, and want to do?

Airport security comes immediately to mind. I sense that nobody really objects to the delays we experience when flying now, so long as they appear to be effective. I think the same can be said for delays entering government buildings, and with the intrusions some of us experience with monitoring of e-mail and other oversight processes that the FBI and other agencies are undertaking as time passes.

The key concept here is that these procedures need to be effective - they have to work.

After 9/11, I proposed a solution to the airport security problem in two articles for DefenseWatch ("Airline Safety: Simple Steps for Better Security," Nov. 14, 2001, and "Security, Common Sense and Gen. Joe Foss," Feb. 20, 2002).

I suggested that airport security was a simple matter of not letting any bad guys or bad stuff on any aircraft. I then proposed that in order to accomplish this, we: (1) require all personnel associated with airport and airline operations to take random, unannounced flights to ensure that they do their jobs effectively; (2) inspect all baggage including hold baggage using initial computerized screening to speed up the process, augmented by hand inspections of items rejected by the initial screening; (3) match hold baggage to passengers using transmitting chips on baggage and boarding passes; (4) screen all passengers against databases of known suspects, applying the latest computer technology; (5) arm aircrew members with non-lethal weapons, or with weapons that will not threaten the integrity of the aircraft; (6) assign security responsibility to airports, not the airlines or feds; (7) have the feds pay the initial costs, but let passengers pay the final costs with a $25 per ticket surcharge (eventually reimbursing the federal government for all costs).

Let's review each item on this list. What have we actually accomplished?

(1) Mandatory flights by airport workers: This hasn't even been addressed, although it would absolutely ensure that personnel connected with flight operations in any manner would do their jobs efficiently and carefully. The only change we have made in the screening process is to hire as federal employees most of the incompetent screeners who couldn't do the job properly in the first place.

(2) Computerized baggage screening: This recommended first step in the screening process also has not even been addressed - even though the technology exists on the shelf right now for most of the process.

(3) Matching checked baggage to boarding passes: Again, this proposal has also not been addressed, even though the airlines could implement this process within a week or so by putting existing resources to the task.

(4) Screening passengers to computer databases: This Item has been partially implemented in a handful of airports with limited success, but interagency squabbles and legal challenges from attorneys looking to gain a reputation have stymied the process.

(5) Arming aircrew with non-lethal weapons: This item has been implemented on a very limited basis - as a test - just this past week, a full nine months after the 9/11 attacks.

(6) Shifting security responsibilities from the airlines and federal government to airports: This item has been completely ignored; rather, the security process has been federalized.

(7) Cover costs of security with a $25 ticket surcharge: This item has not even been discussed, let alone examined for its merits.

Why have these perfectly sound proposals met with little or no reaction?

Call it bureaucratic territorial imperative: "If it didn't originate from this office, then it has no merit."

It seems to me that we are dealing with the safety of all of us. I am not particularly interested in whether or not this or that bureaucrat gets credit for an idea or control over an operation. As a citizen and taxpayer, I want things done yesterday, not tomorrow! I don't mind paying my share of the cost either. The federal government obviously has the funds immediately available. Use them to put a revamped security system in play. Pay them back later, but get them active now.

Airport security managers are most familiar with their unique security situations. Put them in charge and give them the funds to accomplish the necessary. Why are we still fiddling around with this stop-gap, with that interim solution? This is crazy! We are all at risk - let's get the job done now, with federal money, and make the beneficiaries ante up later.

Don't tell me we can't manufacture the necessary equipment for several months. Put enough people in the production pipeline, and you can equip every airport in the country within a month. Sure it will be expensive, but what are a few billion dollars against the lives of thousands of Americans? Get off the pot, people! Do what needs to be done! Now!

We face another serious problem that currently is completely out of control. Every day, hundreds of thousands of shipping containers arrive on our shores. Each of these is large enough to contain a Hiroshima-type nuclear bomb, such as Iraq may already have tested and built.

A close personal contact of mine developed a method for absolutely ensuring that these containers have not been compromised or tampered with following their initial loading and sealing. His technique is foolproof, inexpensive, and easy to implement. He presented his proposal to several high-level industry and government individuals, but was brushed off.

According to my friend, the officials with whom he spoke told him that his solution was impractical since the real problem lay at the source, during the initial loading process. This is patently self-serving BS. My contact's plan called for industry footing part of the bill for this system. By demonstrating the "impracticality" of such a system, they were off the hook for their share of the cost.

In fact, it would be relatively simple for the United States to implement an immediate policy that requires a U.S. inspector to personally certify the contents of any container destined for the United States. Granted, this would take a relatively large number of inspectors, thousands of them, in fact, but it is doable, and can be implemented within a week or so. Use military personnel initially to provide the certifications. Then, as inspectors are hired, replace the soldiers and sailors with civilian inspectors.

Bottom line, if you wish to ship a container to the United States, one of our guys must inspect it immediately prior to its being sealed. Thereafter, the system devised by my acquaintance will ensure that nothing violates the container integrity until it is opened at its destination.

Is it expensive? Sure! But it beats seeing Long Beach Harbor, or the Port of New York disappearing in a nuclear blast.

Vested interests and bureaucratic turf fights are the only thing holding this plan back - and create a real hazard for millions of Americans. What would you call someone who threatened your family and friends with death and destruction?

We heard last week that a credentialed committee has decided not to vaccinate every American against smallpox. Their ostensible reason is that some individuals may get sick and even die from the vaccination. Let me see if I understand this correctly: When smallpox was a recognized threat, receiving a vaccination as a small child was not an option; you had to do it. It was the law.

Smallpox is once again a recognized threat - am I missing something here? If we used to vaccinate people when the threat was real, then why are we not now vaccinating people, since the threat is once again very real? If we require individuals with the financial means to pay for their vaccinations, we can keep the cost relatively low.

Vested interests that exercise control over people's lives and health seem to be operating here. My response is, if you have something I need to remain alive, and if you refuse to give it to me (or sell it to me), that makes you my enemy.

We can have total airport security within a month, with relatively little disruption of travel. We can absolutely prevent the importation of shipping containers carrying weapons of mass destruction within a month or less. Within a week we can provide a significant degree of protection from a deadly biological threat at almost no cost.

So what is the problem? Why is none of this happening? If your representative in Congress is not doing anything about this, it's time to send him or her a clear message. These people have a clear responsibility to make these things happen now, and to do so without any reference to their own personal territorial imperatives.

President Bush said it very clearly immediately following the 9/11 attack: "If you're not with us, then you are with them."

Those who hold up measures like those proposed in this article are part of the problem, and we need to rid ourselves of their kind. Those elected officials who ignore the ugly spectacle of this bureaucratic inertia deserve the same harsh treatment. We should be ready to to take this to the ballot box this fall.