Events

Book Launch -- 9/11 and the Future of Transportation Security

September 07, 2006 // 8:30am10:00am

REMARKS OF R. WILLIAM JOHNSTONE
9/11 AND THE FUTURE OF TRANSPORTATION SECURITY
WILSON CENTER
SEPTEMBER 7, 2006

First of all, I would like to thank my friend Kent Hughes and the Wilson Center for inviting me to be here today. In addition I would like to extend a special thanks to the Honorable Lee Hamilton for his leadership and his support of my work on transportation security both during the existence of the 9/11 Commission and since then. Quite literally, my book would not have been possible without him.

On the day of September 11, 2001, I was in what would turn out to be my next to last of twenty-five years of work on Capitol Hill, serving as the Chief Policy Advisor and legislative director for Senator Max Cleland and sitting in my office in the Dirksen Building across from the Capitol. The severity of the event almost immediately was driven home to those of us on the Hill during the panicked and grid-locked ad hoc evacuation that followed. (Incidentally, we had to abandon our offices only a few weeks later when the anthrax letters arrived in Senator Daschle's office only about fifty yards away.)

Throughout my time on Congressional staffs I had always worked for members who represented the City of Atlanta, and therefore Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and Delta Airlines. Thus, I had some familiarity with the aviation industry, though limited knowledge of or expertise in security matters. In 2001 Senator Cleland was serving on the Senate's aviation subcommittee so I had had an increasing exposure to aviation issues, and certainly to the crowding and customer service issues that seemed most important at the time.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 disaster, I became involved in the legislative responses that became the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, and later the Maritime Transportation Security Act and Homeland Security Act of 2002. From that perspective, I had formed several impressions about why the terrorist attacks succeeded. Above all, I believed that the primary failure had been of the lowly paid, incredibly high turnover, airport checkpoint security screeners, whose myriad deficiencies had been publicly reported over many years. Thus it was understandable to me why so much of the attention, and ultimately the money, generated to respond to the 9/11 tragedy was directed at fixing this particular problem.

In March of 2003, I started work on the staff of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, better known as the 9/11 Commission, where I was assigned to "Team 7," which had responsibility for investigating the four hijackings, and the aviation security system in operation on that day with a goal of describing what happened and how it was able to occur. Our team focused on the FAA Office of Civil Aviation Security, and the airlines and airports that were involved in the hijackings. Another staff team had responsibility for the Air Traffic Control System, NORAD, and the national command authorities, which is why Chapter One of the 9/11 Commission's Final Report is organized the way it is.

Over the next 18 months, we asked for, and received thousands of pages of documents from the FAA, TSA, the FBI, United and American Airlines, and Logan, Dulles, Newark and Portland, Maine Airports. We interviewed scores of witnesses from these entities as well as other aviation security experts and family members or friends of the 9/11 victims who had contacted them during the hijackings. We traveled to the airports the hijackers had used and went to the airline and FAA control rooms where the crisis was monitored and responded to. We inspected aircraft that were identical to those that had been hijacked. For almost everyone we talked to, we were asking them to relive one of the worst days of their lives, and the process was very difficult.

At the beginning of my work with the Commission, in addition to continuing to hold the notion that the primary aviation security failure on 9/11 was of the screeners, after observing the work of the Congressional Joint Inquiry into 9/11-related intelligence failures I also was convinced of the centrality of these shortcomings in explaining why 9/11 was able to occur. Subsequently, I have become persuaded that neither of these standard explanations addresses the fundamental flaws of pre- and post-9/11 transportation security.

The Team 7 findings with respect to the hijackings themselves have been made public in a number of forms. We delivered our preliminary analysis to the Commissioners via testimony at the Commission's January 27, 2004 hearing, in Staff Statements Three (which covered the pre-9/11 aviation security system) and Four (about the four hijackings). The Commission's widely read final report, published in July 2004, provided additional results from our findings about the pre-9/11 aviation security "layers" and the chronological details of the hijackings, as did the subsequently released Staff Report: Monograph on Four Flights and Aviation Security.

This last, which is available online via the National Archives and has recently been published in Barnes & Noble's updated version of the 9/11 Commission report, combined information from Team 7 and our colleagues who had worked on air traffic control and NORAD issues. It thus provides a detailed and unified chronological narrative about the four hijackings, plus substantially more information than was included in the Commission's Final Report with respect to FAA intelligence operations. Unfortunately, and in my view unnecessarily, a significant part of this intelligence information was deleted by TSA.

To briefly summarize our analysis as reported in those documents, we found that at the time of the hijackings, the prescreening of civil aviation passengers in the United States, in the form of the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS, was solely aimed at preventing suspect individuals from placing explosives in their checked baggage. The airport screening checkpoints were geared to preventing the carrying of handguns or large knives on board a plane. Any items with a lesser metal content, say box cutters or short-bladed knives, would likely not have been detected, barring an effective physical search by a security screening workforce whose performance difficulties had been publicly documented by the GAO and others for more than a decade.

In the event such a weapon were discovered, the Checkpoint Operations Guide then in effect directed screeners to require that the box cutters be placed in checked baggage, whereas short-bladed knives would have been permitted to be carried into the passenger cabin. Once on the plane, a would-be hijacker would have been confronted with the flight crew tactics outlined in the so-called Common Strategy that were designed to avoid attempts to overpower the hijackers and that did not address the possibility of suicidal intent.

Furthermore, all of these aviation security system attributes were, at least to some degree, knowable to interested parties via a review of the public record and/or carefully planned "test-runs."

In conclusion, we found that the terrorist hijackers of 9/11 were determined and highly motivated and therefore largely immune to the "deterrent" value that was the chief goal of the aviation security system's anti-hijacking defenses in place on 9/11 and that had been apparently effective in preventing any domestic hijacking for a decade. By escaping notice in FAA Security Directives (which supplied the pre-9/11 "no fly" lists for the air carriers and as of 9/11, consisted of the names of 12 individuals, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, one of the key planners of the 9/11 attacks, but none of the 19 hijackers), using as weapons short-bladed knives not likely to be detected at the checkpoints and in any event permissible, and employing tactics that did not conform to the traditional, non-suicide hijacking paradigm dealt with by the Common Strategy, they were very likely to succeed in their act of catastrophic terrorism.

Phase two of Team 7's work involved examination of the post-9/11 status not only of aviation security but the other transportation modes as well, and included the development of "recommendations for corrective measures" in the transportation arena, as called for in the legislation that created the 9/11 Commission. Several of our recommendations were adopted by the Commissioners and were included in Chapter 12 of the Final Report. In addition, with the encouragement of the Commissioners, we provided a copy of all 91 of our recommendations to relevant Congressional committees.

However, given that aviation and transportation security was only one of a number of topics that the 9/11 Commission was mandated by law to investigate, that the Commission was under a tight statutorily imposed reporting deadline, and that space considerations prevented publication of all of the information discovered by the Commission and its staff, much of Team 7's work did not make it to the public record.

More specifically, although the findings just summarized as to what happened and when it happened, on the four hijacked flights, and what aviation security defenses were defeated by the hijackers and how they were defeated have been generally well covered in what has already been made public, in my opinion not enough has been put on the record that attempts to explain why the aviation security system failed. Similarly, though our recommendations received some attention and even action by the Congress, the basis for them, especially our evaluation of the current state of transportation security, did not.

Such considerations led me to undertake to write this book, titled 9/11 and the Future of Transportation Security, that seeks to augment the work of the 9/11 Commission in the field of aviation and transportation security by offering explanations for the aviation security system failure on 9/11, evaluating post-9/11 transportation security, and proposing remedies for continuing shortcomings. It is based on information provided to the 9/11 Commission, supplemented by reports and other material that has come to light since the issuance of the Commission's final report in July 2004. The information derived from the work of the 9/11 Commission was subject to a security review by TSA, which was completed in May 2005.

And after the difficulties experienced in getting the aforementioned staff monograph through the TSA review process, which ended with what I continue to feel are unjustified redactions on national security grounds, I determined to provide as extensive documentation from publicly available sources as I possibly could in order to minimize the possibility for redactions. To all of those who have suffered through the 600 plus endnotes in 9/11 and the Future of Transportation Security, I offer this as my only defense! And on that count, it worked. TSA did not redact or ask that I remove a single item.

Turning to the main conclusions of my book, I believe that 9/11 was primarily, though not exclusively, a failure of the aviation security system that had evolved over the years in response to previous disasters, like Pan Am 103, or near-disasters, like the Bojinka plot, and whose defenses were essentially irrelevant given the tactics and methods employed by the 9/11 hijackers. Furthermore, those flaws were so extensive with respect to this particular line of attack that multiple mistakes by the hijackers throughout the day of 9/11 itself were not enough to lead to detection and thwarting of the plot. And given all of this date, site and even individual-specific information generated on 9/11 by the actions of the hijackers themselves, in my opinion it is highly questionable whether better intelligence, short of advance and specific identification of the plotters – as was, thankfully, the case recently in London – would have prevented 9/11.

So my conclusion is that it wasn't just faulty checkpoint screening, and it was only marginally poor intelligence that opened the way to 9/11, but rather a flawed security system. There were a number of individuals who presented often valuable evidence to the 9/11 Commission who concurred with this assessment, finding the ultimate cause in the incompetence or corruption of certain individuals, primarily within the FAA. But, while I agree that there was a serious failure of leadership – not only at the FAA, but in all of the other major elements of the aviation security system including the Congress, other elements in the Executive Branch (most notably the Office of Management and Budget), and the airlines and airports – it would make no sense for those individuals to design a system for failure, when such a result would surely wreck their careers, and do serious damage to their organizations and businesses. In my view, they – I should say we since I was a part of the Congressional component for 25 years – erected a least-cost security system that they felt was adequate for the threats they had previously experienced. In hindsight, this was tragically wrong, but, in my view, it is at least understandable.

The bulk of my book is devoted to examining the post-9/11 transportation security system. In brief, I believe that many of the most significant shortcomings in pre-9/11 aviation security have continued to the present.

First, reactivity and incident-driven decision making still predominate in transportation security, evident in the ongoing focus on passenger aviation, the (short-lived) priority afforded to rail and transit security after the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London bombings, the recent attention to the long-standing problem of liquid explosives, the limited use of rule making in making permanent revisions in the transportation security "baseline," and the absence of strong policy planning.

Second, the clash of security with other societal imperatives, including consumer convenience, citizen rights, and taxpayer and shareholder satisfaction, continues to strongly influence the performance of the transportation security system.

Third, the system of shared responsibilities and dispersed accountability that marked the 9/11 aviation security system remains in force today for all transportation security efforts. For land transportation, this model has been explicitly adopted and numerous "gray areas" of uncertain jurisdiction continue to exist in the other modes, including aviation.

Fourth, the layered approach to transportation security, under which the failure of a single component does not lead to a system-wide failure, that was an important goal of both the pre- and post-9/11 aviation security systems continues to be honored more in the breach than the observance. In my view, such layers are either flawed (still the case with all of the aviation security layers), incomplete (for example, container security—perhaps the single most important component of maritime security—is overwhelmingly reliant on a single security layer: prescreening of cargo) or virtually nonexistent (with respect to all land modes with the partial exception of mass transit).

The successor to the 9/11 Commission, the 9/11 Public Discourse Project, reported that, as of December 2005, DHS and TSA 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

Though many of the problems have continued, there is a fundamental difference between the pre-9/11 world and now. I have serious doubts as to whether more security-conscious leadership could have improved civil aviation defenses sufficiently to have thwarted the 9/11 hijackings. The FAA's Baseline Working Group, which in 1996 called for a quantum increase in federal aviation security activities, was such an opportunity. But in the pre-9/11 world, I believe it was doomed to fail, with neither the White House, nor the Congress, nor the American public prepared to accept the financial costs and inconveniences its recommendations would have entailed.

However, 9/11 was a watershed event, and in its aftermath there was a massive change in mindset toward the terrorist threat and the priority to be attached to homeland security. The national leadership responded with a multibillion dollar increase in federal expenditures, and a host of policy initiatives. It has clearly become possible to do much more to bolster transportation security than was ever the case prior to 2001 and many dedicated, hard-working individuals have devoted themselves to making the nation more secure. Even so, many independent analyses have concluded that these efforts fall far short of the need.

So why aren't we doing better?

To begin with, securing the nation's transportation systems is very, very difficult. Would-be defenders are confronted with the daunting assignment of protecting a vast, nationwide array of airports, ports, tracks, roads, tunnels, bridges, stations, cargo, passengers, and workers. They must do so in a manner that minimizes disruption to commerce, inconvenience to riders, and costs to customers, shippers, and taxpayers. They must continually defeat a terrorist enemy that can choose the time, place, and method of attack, utilizing publicly available information on security vulnerabilities. And they must cope with the fact that the nature of this particular threat means that protections must be maintained even though incidents may be few and far between.

But presuming that this current state of affairs is insufficient and unsatisfactory, where do we go from here?

It is my opinion that we have been, in the words of one former DHS official, practicing homeland and transportation security "management by inbox, getting distracted by daily emergencies." And policy direction at both DHS and TSA has often seemed to be based more on the individual policy preferences of their frequently changing leadership rather than as part of a coherent plan, as witnessed by the ebb and flow of departmental and agency attention to regional offices, passenger prescreening, or the Registered Traveler program, to name but a few.

I do not believe we will be able to make substantial and sustained progress in transportation security, or in homeland security more generally, unless and until we face up to and effectively answer the "big picture" policy questions about how much security we want, who is to be responsible and accountable for it, and how we are going to pay for it.

Starting with the first of these, how is security to be prioritized, and balanced with other societal imperatives, including fiscal responsibility, economic efficiency, and civil liberties?

Homeland security is unquestionably a preeminent priority for any national government but, whatever the political rhetoric, it cannot be, and certainly is not now for the U.S. government, the sole priority whose pursuit overrides all competing claims.

Although in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it was perhaps true that the country and its leaders were willing to subordinate other competing budgetary and policy priorities to homeland security needs, with the passage of time and in the absence of further incidents, these other claims have predictably, and necessarily, reasserted themselves.

Thus, TSA has backed away from the more ambitious CAPPS II program for targeting aviation security resources and continues to stumble in its attempts to move forward with the scaled-back Secure Flight program, because of its inability to successfully address public and Congressional concerns about the program's impact on civil liberties. Congress has limited TSA spending on, and deployment of, checkpoint screeners and the installation of in-line explosives detection equipment has slowed because of competing budgetary priorities.

All of this highlights the fundamental need to debate fully the costs and benefits of proposed security measures and, through our democratic institutions, to determine the proper balance among security for the society, individual rights, personal convenience, and financial cost. There are no easy answers here, and to pretend otherwise, or even worse, to ignore such a need, was an invitation for disaster on 9/11, and continues to be so.

The kind of vigorous debate about the extension of the Patriot Act is a good example of what is needed in the field of transportation security. That debate has been difficult, heated, and protracted. Legitimate differences of opinion have been aired and recognized. It has involved compromises of both security and civil liberties, and it promises to continue in recognition that, by its nature, such a debate can never be fully and finally resolved. We have seen little of this in transportation security, perhaps since the Gore Commission was able to strike enough of a balance between security and privacy in 1997 to allow the original CAPPS system to go forward. That needs to change.

The second fundamental issue is, how is transportation security to be organized: who is to be responsible for what?

One facet of the 9/11 aviation security failure was the lack of accountability afforded by the system of divided responsibilities. Unfortunately, for the most part, little has been accomplished post-9/11 to clarify the situation. In particular, other than for passenger aviation, the security roles and responsibilities of federal, state, local, and private entities over the whole range of transportation modes have gone largely undefined.

Transportation security today is full of examples where large questions remain unanswered about the nature and extent of the federal role, including in such areas as airport access, general aviation, port security, and the entire realm of land transportation.

In addition, important decisions have yet to be made as to how certain transportation security functions are to be handled within the federal government, many of them centering on the future of TSA.

It was hoped that the transportation security plan called for by the 9/11 Commission and mandated by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 would answer such questions. That was clearly the Commission's intent when it recommended, "The plan should assign roles and missions to the relevant authorities (federal, state, regional, and local) and to private stakeholders." But in the absence of more detailed guidance than was contained in the National Strategy for Transportation Security unveiled in September 2005 as the 9/11 PDP observed, the current plan "lacks the necessary detail to make an effective national tool."

In the end, the key measure of the effectiveness of any effort to delineate responsibilities for transportation security will be the extent to which the federal role is detailed. The other governmental and private stakeholders can, and almost certainly would, adjust their approaches once the federal government indicates what it will, and as importantly, what it will not do with respect to transportation security. The federal government cannot, and should not, be expected to "do it all," but it must not leave its putative security partners in the dark as to who is in charge. The current muddle has got to change.

The final key question is, how are security measures to be funded: who will pay?

Of all of the impediments to improved security, this one appears particularly intractable under current circumstances. Among these is a likely federal budget crunch. CBO has estimated that the federal deficit over the next ten years will total $2.1 trillion, not including the cost of any additional American military activities in Iraq or Afghanistan after 2007. Furthermore, even to achieve this level of red ink would require that discretionary spending, the category under which most transportation security funding falls, must be cut by some $738 billion in that period.

The private sector faces its own challenges in finding the resources to pay for security measures. For example, the airline industry has still not recovered financially from the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Some smaller, low-cost airlines have posted positive earnings, but the larger companies continue to run in the red. And these losses have persisted up to the present, with the industry as a whole estimating a shortfall of $9 billion to $10 billion for 2005. And similar challenges exist for private, state, local and regional stakeholders in the other modes as well.

From the pre-9/11 aviation security system where documented screening performance shortcomings went unfixed and mandated explosives detection systems went un-deployed in large part because of the unresolved question of how those measures should be financed, all the way through to the November 2004 legislation implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations, which deleted the Commission's requirement that the national transportation security plan provide a means for adequately funding its security measures, this particular "hard question" of who pays has not so much been poorly answered as ignored by federal policy makers. Even today, key federal security efforts for air cargo, ports, and mass transit are little more than un-funded mandates.

In the final analysis, a failure to make a formal decision on who pays for security is, in fact, a decision that no one will have to pay. And the failure of the federal government to assume a significant share of transportation security costs other than for passenger aviation is a telling indicator of the actual priority attached to such efforts.

All of this has got to change if we are to make lasting improvements in transportation security. In addition, it is useful to look at the lessons learned from the previous and current systems and the policy recommendations made by the many commissions and other organizations that have examined aviation and transportation security in recent years.

Such a review suggests a number of cornerstone principles for transportation security that appear to be lacking, in varying degrees, in current efforts. To maximize its effectiveness, the United States should build a transportation security system that

• Treats the issue as a matter of national security, with commensurate resources and policy focus, rather than as a "second tier" activity as suggested by current funding levels and bureaucratic clout.
• Prioritizes budgets and policy measures, within and across modal lines, based on relative risks rather than on responding to the latest incident, bureaucratic inertia, or pork barrel politics.
• Builds a comprehensive and sustainable "baseline" of standard security across all transportation modes and intermodal connections rather than a series of largely unconnected systems based on ad hoc, reactive decision making.
• Improves both the quality and flow of relevant security information to state, local, and private stakeholders and the general public rather than relying on an approach that continually calls for "heightened alert" to a high, but nonspecific threat while offering largely unfounded reassurances about current vulnerabilities.
• Provides response and recovery efforts with sufficient authority, resources, and leadership to deal effectively with disasters rather than the kind of "too little, too late" response exemplified in the case of Hurricane Katrina.
• Clearly assigns transportation security roles to federal and nonfederal agencies and holds those assigned fully accountable for security performance rather than continuing the old and current systems of often ill-defined "shared responsibilities" where no agency is held to account.

I would like to conclude with a couple of observations. A recurring question in transportation, and especially aviation, security has been on whether the focus should be on screening technology to "look for bad things," or pre-screening "to look for bad people." This is indeed an important question, but, if we have learned nothing else from the history of aviation security before, during, and after 9/11, there are no silver bullets with respect to security—not technological improvements in explosives detection equipment as sought after Pan Am 103, nor better screening of suspect baggage pointed to by the Gore Commission, nor tighter checkpoint screening that has received so much of post-9/11 attention and resources, nor intelligence reform, which was the focal point of the legislation implementing the 9/11 Commission recommendations (appropriately titled the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act).

No single defensive (or offensive) measure can possibly secure the nation against the various (and evolving) targets of the terrorists. Furthermore, no such layer is, or possibly can be, 100 percent effective over time and against changing threats. In my view, putting all one's eggs in one basket is a proven recipe for failure and disaster. Thus I believe the proper response to the question is that we must try to improve both screening and pre-screening, and go after both "bad things" and "bad people." One answer to the latest revelations about the shortcomings in checkpoint explosives detection is, yes, to move as expeditiously as possible to develop and deploy better technology. But an equally important response is to re-double efforts to develop and institute the Secure Flight program, including appropriate civil liberties protections.

Finally, there is the question of how to set transportation security priorities. GAO, the 9/11 Commission and others have cited continuing problems in DHS and TSA priority setting efforts and called upon them to make much more use of risk management principles in such decision-making.

With all due respect, and taking into account the enormous start-up challenges facing both of these entities, this is one requirement that should not be allowed to slip. In its absence, which almost every analysis of current transportation security policy-making suggests is most definitely the case at present, neither the federal agencies, nor the Congress, nor the public can properly evaluate critical decisions that are being made every day with respect to the large increase in federal funding that has been made available—for now at least—to support homeland security. Questions such as the optimum number (and therefore cost) of airport checkpoint screeners, or Federal Air Marshals, or port security assessments, or canine teams for mass transit, or transportation security intelligence analysts should not be made in isolation. Yet, at present, there does not appear to be any more of a basis for TSA to prioritize across all transportation modes than there was for FAA to do so within aviation security. That also has got to change.


Thanks very much for your patience and your attention. And now I will be pleased to try to answer your questions.

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