Not Safe Enough: Fixing Transportation Security



Not Safe Enough: Fixing Transportation Security

More than five years after 9/11, the federal government has yet to come to grips with basic questions about priorities, roles, and funding.

In August 2006, British authorities announced that they had uncovered a plot in which liquid explosives would be used to destroy airliners en route from England to the United States. When the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) responded by banning all liquids and gels from passenger aircraft cabins, it was widely reported that such action was necessary because existing screening equipment could not detect the kind of explosives involved in the plot. This is perhaps understandable, given the daunting technological challenge of developing detectors that are not only sensitive enough to identify explosives from among the wide array of liquids routinely carried on aircraft, but also compact and affordable enough to be widely deployed and quick enough to not unduly impede passenger flow.

But this response comes 11 years after the similar Bojinka plot (a plan to bomb 12 U.S.-registered aircraft flying across the Pacific) was foiled in 1995, five years after the 9/11 hijackings that produced unprecedented attention and funding for aviation security, and two years after the 2004 law that sought to implement the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States’ (9/11 Commission’s) recommendation to prioritize the development and deployment of effective checkpoint explosives detectors. By itself, this is sobering, but when taken together with widespread evidence that such limited progress is the rule rather than the exception across all transportation security programs, a fundamental reassessment is in order about how the United States is approaching this issue.

Although customs agents or checkpoint screeners are often the focus of published reports on security lapses, the shortcomings in the current system do not rest primarily with the front-line personnel charged with implementing transportation security. Rather, the problem is that the Bush administration and Congress have failed to adequately address the key, big-picture questions about the management, funding, accountability, and, above all, priorities for the emerging transportation security system. Although progress in bolstering transportation security has been made since 9/11, additional action is needed to remedy continuing deficiencies.

Before September 11, 2001, U.S. transportation security was limited in extent and purpose. Transit police and subway surveillance cameras sought to deter or detect criminal activity. Customs agents at ports looked for smugglers. In aviation, the only sector that had received significant security policy attention and resources from the federal government, the emphasis was overwhelmingly directed overseas. The events of 9/11 altered all of that. The federal government responded with a flurry of initiatives, including:

  • The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, which created TSA to be responsible for the security of all transportation modes and established deadlines for the implementation of specific aviation security measures.
  • The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, which set security guidelines for ports and ships.
  • The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by combining 22 federal agencies, including TSA, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
  • The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which turned many of the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations, including those relating to transportation security, into statutory mandates.

The expanded policy attention was accompanied by a substantial rise in federal funding for transportation security, which increased from well under $200 million in fiscal year (FY) 2001 (almost all of which went for aviation security) to more than $8.5 billion in FY 2006, with 70% devoted to aviation.


As a result, improvements have been made in many areas of transportation security during the past five years. Passenger aircraft are much less vulnerable to another 9/11-style of attack. More air and sea cargo is being scrutinized in some fashion. More attention has been given to vulnerability assessments of the nation’s transportation infrastructure and to security training for law enforcement and transportation workers. Above all, there is greater awareness of the terrorist threat. But major questions remain about the effectiveness of all elements of the new system.

The Heritage Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies jointly reported that DHS “is weighed down with bureaucratic layers, is rife with turf warfare, and lacks a structure for strategic thinking and policymaking.” According to a 2005 survey of homeland security officials and independent experts, “the department remains under financed and understaffed, and suffers from weak leadership.” The 9/11 Commission found that “The current efforts do not yet reflect a forward-looking strategic plan systematically analyzing assets, risks, costs, and benefits.” The successor to the 9/11 Commission, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project (PDP), reported that, as of December 2005, progress in implementing the commission’s transportation security recommendations rated a “C” for airport checkpoint screening for explosives; a “C–” for the National Strategy for Transportation Security, a “D” for checked bag and cargo screening, and an “F” for airline passenger prescreening.

Aviation security

Among the layers of aviation security, TSA’s intelligence division is now more relevant to its agency leadership and decisionmaking process than was its predecessor within the Federation Aviation Administration, but although it is twice as large as its predecessor, it remains significantly understaffed, and its agents are now spread much more thinly, with responsibilities for all transportation modes, not just aviation.

Progress has been reported in airport perimeter security through a reduction in airport access points, an increase in surveillance of individuals and vehicles entering airports, and some improvement in airport-employee background checks. However, little has changed in the old system’s divided responsibilities for access control, with the federal government, airport authorities, and to a lesser extent the airlines all having a role.

The number of names currently on the “no-fly” list used to prevent known or suspected terrorists from boarding commercial aircraft and the “automatic selectee” list that subjects them to additional security scrutiny is now much larger than before 9/11. However, administrative problems and the intelligence community’s concern about sharing sometimes highly classified names with the private airlines that still implement these programs have resulted in many of those identified in the government’s consolidated terrorist watch list still not appearing on either aviation security list.

The pre-screening system in use today is largely the same as the one that selected 10 of the hijackers on 9/11, with the added consequence of subjecting the selectee to a search of their person and carry-on bags. Testing of the follow-on program, called Secure Flight, has progressed very slowly. Privacy groups remain concerned about the program’s potential, describing it at a hearing of a DHS advisory panel on privacy rights as “an unprecedented government role, designating citizens as suspect” and criticizing TSA for being “incredibly resistant” to providing the public with necessary information. In September 2006, Congress reported that passenger names were still not being checked against the full terrorist watch list and cut funding for Secure Flight by more than 50%.

Problems have persisted in screening of passengers and checked bags, which have received by far the most post9/11 policy attention and funding. The current federalized checkpoint screening workforce is more numerous, better paid, more experienced, and better trained than its pre9/11 private-contractor counterpart. But a series of reports by the DHS inspector general have documented continuing poor performance.

By the latter part of 2003, all checked bags were being screened for explosives, compared to just 5% before 9/11; but because of shortages of equipment and screener personnel, some of the screening is being done with canine bomb-sniffing teams and manual bag searches rather than explosive-detection equipment. There are continuing concerns about the capabilities of existing explosives-detection equipment and about placing the machines in airport lobbies rather than integrating them with baggage conveyor systems, which offers both operational and security benefits. TSA has indicated that under current funding levels, this “optimal” baggage screening system will not be fully deployed until 2024.

The onboard security layers underwent the most immediate transformation after 9/11. U.S. airlines and international airlines flying to the United States were required to install reinforced cockpit doors. The “Common Strategy” training program for flight crews (which as of 9/11 had called for accommodation with hijackers) was revised to take into account the 9/11 tactics. The number of federal air marshals was increased dramatically, and agents are now assigned to domestic as well as international flights.

Nevertheless, deficiencies have been noted in each of the onboard security measures. The effectiveness of the hardened cockpit doors has been questioned because of reported crew failures to secure the door throughout a flight. The quality of the new security training has also been doubted, with the Association of Flight Attendants indicating that “we still have not been trained to appropriately handle a security crisis or terrorist attack onboard our airplanes.” The rapid expansion of the air marshals programs has produced operational and management problems, including an abbreviated curriculum for training, and budget constraints have prevented it from reaching its target staffing levels.

In addition, general aviation security has not been substantially upgraded. There is no security screening for pilots and passengers or for baggage and cargo. Threat and vulnerability assessments have yet to be undertaken for most general aviation airports. Similar shortcomings continue to exist in air cargo security. Reportedly, only 5% of all air cargo is currently screened, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has indicated that aircraft carrying cargo continue to be highly vulnerable to terrorist sabotage. TSA has proposed a set of regulations for air cargo security, but as is typical for rulemaking, the process is moving very slowly. Even if finalized, the new rules would provide few details on how the freight industry, which is expected to implement the security program, is to fulfill this unfunded mandate.

Maritime security

Although the potential vulnerability of the U.S. maritime sector was noted before 9/11 (for example, by the 2000 federal Interagency Committee on Crime and Security), little was done to address that vulnerability. After 9/11, the situation has changed somewhat, although far less has been done than in the aviation sector.

Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the Coast Guard was made primarily responsible for port security, but the DHS inspector general, the GAO, and its own commandant have all reported difficulties in trying to fulfill the new responsibilities together with its traditional rescue, drug-interdiction, and other missions under current funding levels. And a 2005 maritime security report observed that “A compressed and disjointed timeline for implementing the act has definitely affected what the MTSA (Maritime Transportation Security Administration) has actually accomplished….Overall,too many facility plans are little more than lists of activities that individually and collectively fall far short of the goals set by MTSA.”

The Customs and Border Protection division of DHS has principal responsibility for container security. Its Container Security Initiative (CSI) identifies and prescreens “highrisk” containers bound for the United States from the largest ports outside the country. The Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) creates government/industry partnerships that offer expedited customs processing for shipping companies that reduce their security vulnerabilities. But in March 2006, congressional investigators reported that only a little more than one-third of the high-risk containers identified by the CSI program were actually inspected and that only about one-fourth of the companies receiving preferential treatment under C-TPAT had had their security practices validated. They also found that, despite the spending of more than $300 million and the priority supposedly attached to the undertaking, fewer than 40% of cargo containers entering U.S. ports were being screened for nuclear or radiological material.

Because of these and other perceived shortcomings, Congress in October 2006 enacted the SAFE Ports Act, which seeks to expedite the development and deployment of more advanced inspection detectors, codify and revise the CSI and C-TPAT programs, require that port security grants be based on risk assessment, establish a port security training and exercise program, and require DHS to develop a plan to enhance the security of the maritime supply chain and speed the resumption of trade after a terrorist attack. It remains to be seen whether the new law will be accompanied by the sustained funding and implementation efforts likely to be necessary if it is to prove more effective than previous attempts to boost maritime security.

Land transportation security

Although terrorists have repeatedly demonstrated both an interest in and the capability to attack the land transportation modes, exemplified most recently by the bombings of Madrid commuter trains in 2004 and London subways in 2005, a report