Israel's El Al -- the world's most secure airline
In her column in today's New York Times, Maureen Dowd quotes Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano saying this on New Year's Eve:
“I think we do a disservice if we tell people there are 100 percent guarantees. I think we tell them we’re doing everything we can to reduce risk. I think we tell people that they are also part of the system. I mean, the passengers on this plane were a line of defense, the flight crew were a line of defense. So everybody has a shared responsibility here. You can’t just say, well, this government department or that government department’s got the whole shebang.”
You'd think that Napolitano would have learned from her unbelievably mindless statement on December 27th about the Christmas Day fizzled bomb attack that the "system worked." In fact, she was forced to walk back that comment as the President acknowledged for the first time the seriousness of the security breach.
But here she was at a sit-down with Dowd on December 31st telling MoDo and the flying public that the zillions of dollars spent on airline security and other counter-terrorism measures can't guarantee that you'll reach your destination without being blown into tiny pieces, although the government, presumably her department included, is "doing everything we can to reduce risk."
Apart from her continuing defensiveness (and her infuriating attempt to suggest that passengers should be "a line of defense"), this statement is flat out false. The government is not doing everything it can to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks on airplanes.
The simplest way to test this is to ask the question still on most Americans' minds nine days after the pantybomber tried to kill 288 innocent people: how did a 23-year-old Nigerian with a Muslim name, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and a bomb in his pants waltz onto a Detroit-bound Delta airliner despite having purchased a ticket in Accra, Ghana, in cash and checked no luggage? And despite a trail of intelligence information tagging him as a risk that included his own father turning him in a month earlier?
There has been a great deal of attention from the media, politicians and the blogosphere to the second question. Rightly so. It's critically important to make sure eight years and huge expenditures after 9/11 that the much-ballyhooed system to "connect the dots" set up under the control of the new Director of National Intelligence, especially the National Counterterrorism Center, works smoothly to bring together and analyze intelligence in a timely and effective way.
In particular, the Christmas case points clearly to a need to broaden the criteria used by the NCTC to put a suspicion person on a list that would result in closer scrutiny in the process of airport screening.
But if we focus attention on the intelligence issues, aren't we missing the obvious and allowing Napolitano to beg off on the ability of her agency to guarantee security? Why wasn't Abdulmutallab screened carefully for no more reason than that he paid for his ticket in cash and had no luggage? Have we not been led to believe a thousand times since 9/11 that these are the sort of indicators that screeners use to trigger heightened scrutiny? And if his Muslim name were thrown into the bargain, wouldn't you want him questioned and/or searched more carefully? Isn't it likely that this kind of -- dare I say it? -- profiling would get us a lot closer to a "100 percent guarantee" than any imaginable further reshuffling of the intelligence community alphabet soup?
That's not "racial profiling," which would have an unsavory quality and unfairly brand all Arabs and South Asians. Rather, it's the approach used by Israel's airline, El Al, which has not had an aircraft attacked since 1968, even though every jihadist in the world would relish bringing down an Israeli airplane. From its inception, El Al's security program has taken into account that it might be targeted by pro-Palestinian leftist terrorists from Europe, Japan and elsewhere. El Al is well aware of the potential threat posed by the Richard Reids and Jose Padillas of the world who don't have Muslim names and carry European or American passports. And employing its behavioral profiling, El Al security once blocked from boarding a young Irish woman whose Palestinian boyfriend had placed a bomb in her effects.
To be sure, El Al takes into account that terrorists are most likely to be young Muslim men, but it's hardly that simple or crude. All passengers are questioned by highly trained personnel who spend little time on old ladies and families travelling with children but focus on those more likely to fit the terrorist profile. The questions are not always the same, denying terrorists the opportunity to rehearse answers. Anomalies do not go unnoticed. For example, El Al would have asked Abdulmutallab not only why he paid for his ticket in cash, but also why he bought it in Accra, who he knew in Ghana, when and why he had been there, and so on. El Al also examines carry-ons closely but doesn't do such silly things as banning shampoo and water bottles. It puts every bag through a decompression chamber that would explode any bomb rigged to go off at a certain altitude.
The only true measure of the US and Israeli approaches to airborne terror is results: no El Al aircraft has been attacked in 42 years, while terrorists have come terrifying close to exploding U.S. airliners twice now, even with the knowledge of 9/11 and all the subsequent known plots against airplanes.
No, Secretary Napolitano, you can't give a 100% guarantee the way things are now -- but you can try a lot harder and you have in El Al a (so far) perfect model to follow.
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