Whenever Americans hear of a foiled terrorist plot on someone else's shores, like a couple of doofus-class terrorists botching their big attempt in Glasgow, it triggers both relief that it didn't happen here and concern that it might the next time.
Immediately after the British discovered the car bombs this past week, meetings within the increasingly labyrinthian warrens of Homeland Security focused on the intelligence assessments of what happened in Britain and Glasgow and whether the incidents constituted a raised threat in the United States.
Hidden in this process, however, is the reality that America has become a very difficult target for al Qaeda, especially when it comes to aviation. That doesn't mean we should be smug or that Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration should shrug anything off. But it does mean that before we get down to the hard questions including where the vast remaining vulnerabilities of a free society should be reduced further, we should stop and appreciate how one of our enemy's prime targets — our aviation system — has been hardened.
The results of six years of hard work are impressive, if incomplete. First, thanks to all the changes we've made, gaining lethal access to the cockpits of American airliners in flight is no longer a sufficiently viable possibility to permit al Qaeda's success. Because we know it tends to avoid attacks that have a poor probability of success, merely increasing the difficulty closes off much of the potential for disaster.
And, although our airfields and the myriad workers who have access to the ramps are by no means as secure as they should be — thanks in part to the absence of a universal ID system still being discussed — mounting an operation to load a bomb on an airliner also has scant chance of success.
Second, while our enemy — and make no mistake, we are in a world war with an intractable foe — is looking for high body counts and massive impact on the American economy, the level of intelligence gathering in the United States, especially around the aviation industry, has made life very difficult for those who need massive and continuous coordination to mount a truly lethal airport attack. And yes, you civil libertarians, that also means the degree of electronic intercept intelligence has helped significantly and is vital.
As was pointed out by many commentators over the weekend, a combination of luck, hard work and the vigilance of the general public reporting anything suspicious is required to thwart any terrorist operation. But without an underpinning of active intelligence gathering, even luck and public vigilance isn't enough. There is more hard work to be done in order to deal with the tougher realities: our continuing aviation vulnerabilities.
The only viable possibility of an airliner being used in the style of Sept. 11 to hit a U.S. target is hijacking an inbound overseas flight aboard a foreign carrier. That requires not only intelligence cooperation from the country launching the flight, but also the vigilance of our air traffic controllers. And yet we have an FAA administrator who has gratuitously started a war with the controllers, distracting them, demeaning the requirements for rest and training, and otherwise introducing a dangerous element in the security equation even before we get to the questions of safety in the overall air traffic system.