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.
The second-level threat is still the possibility of a bomb at a U.S. airport. While the foiled threat to JFK several weeks back (blowing up jet fuel pipelines that don't in fact explode the way the plotters imagined) was grossly overblown by chest-thumping authorities and politicians, that sort of attack mentality targeting airports for high casualties is a very real worry. And how would you get a bomb to the airport? Put rubber tires on it and drive it in.
There's no question that stopping and searching every vehicle coming into an airport only works in the face of an intelligence assessment that there's an immediate threat. But the fact remains that on any given day a limousine (or town car or sport utility vehicle) as loaded with explosives as the one found in Britain could cruise up to almost any American airport terminal and destroy the lives of dozens if not hundreds of travelers.
The problem is the balance between risk and free access, and that same balance problem exists with every tunnel in and out of New York, every bridge in America and every sports arena. If we clamp down hard and make sure no uninspected vehicle approaches an airport, air travel will slow down, hundreds of millions of dollars will be lost by a collection of already financially sick airlines and Americans — too many of whom are still unaware a war is on — will howl until a real attack occurs or TSA relents.
The dilemma, of course, is that if we take away enough of our own freedoms to try to gain the total security that's essentially unattainable in a free society, our enemies have already won by our own hands. Yet the holes that still exist in the system, some of which I will never mention in public, need to be plugged as effectively as we've plugged the possibility of a 9/11 repeat — by making it far more difficult than it is today.
Here's the deal, as Ross Perot used to say: TSA needs to be thinking about effective measures, not the sort of window dressing we already see at too many airports, where police spend far too much time and energy shooing away obviously legitimate users because they lingered for an extra minute at curbside to kiss a loved one goodbye. The original idea behind the "no stopping, loading and unloading only"? Prevent someone from parking an explosive-laden van and running from it before detonation.
The reality? The current system of keeping people from lingering at the curb is ridiculous, ineffective and basically designed to convince everyone into thinking that something effective is being done (or at the most cynical, done to lure us into a sense of false security). Instead, let's hope Homeland Security and TSA focus on putting in place systems that are precisely designed to prevent what we know the enemy would like to do, not just institute some change for the sake of visibility.
There's no time or money available to squander on useless methods, and the enemy, as insane with hatred as they are, will always figure a way around worthless barriers to execute their murderous plans.