Oregon Consultant Sniffs Out Danger at Airports

Mar. 13--On the D concourse at Portland International Airport, a gaunt 67-year-old man arrives from New York City bearing suitcases that appear heavier than he is.

He pauses, dropping his bags, and passengers flow around him. Their worst nightmares are his life's work: terrorism, explosions, airplane hijackings. He sees dangers they don't.

He recalls giving a workshop on airport security in San Francisco about a month before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

"I knew our airport security was at risk," he says. "And quite frankly, most of the people in the room thought I was nuts."

He is Charles Slepian, a nationally known authority on security -- particularly aviation security. He writes, lectures widely and is interviewed frequently on national television. Danger is his stock in trade.

In November 2000, an article by Slepian, "Security Up in the Air," appeared in Security Management, a publication of ASIS International, an association of security professionals.

Slepian wrote that airports remained vulnerable to attack, and he criticized fragmented authority for security, which he said should rest with the federal government.

"Before 9/11, he was talking about the risks that were out there that predated everyone else's alarm about the aviation industries," said Michael Gips, a senior editor of the magazine.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the nation's security apparatus has been reorganized. But to Slepian, airport security, despite money and federal reorganization, "remains in condition red."

"We were able to fight World War II in less time than it has taken us to secure our airports," he says.

Slepian divides his time between a four-bedroom Tudor-style home on Bull Mountain near Tigard, where he has lived since 1991, and a studio apartment near the Empire State Building in New York City, a mile from the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood.

The terrorist attacks on the towers changed his life. Despite early concerns about airport security, he says he didn't foresee an attack of that magnitude.

"It was probably the single most important life-changing event in my 67 years," he says. "I have dedicated a portion of my life to paying back my country for this experience."

Slepian is founder of the Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center that consults and advises on a spectrum of security and risk situations. But he does not accept payment for work related to aviation security.

"I did not feel comfortable working for a client in the industry when I am commenting on that industry," he says. "And I have some strong personal feelings about what happened on 9/11."

A New York City native, Slepian received his law degree from Fordham University School of Law and served as director of tourism and also as deputy chief of protocol for New York City under former Mayor John V. Lindsay.

When he left city government in 1973, he gradually became immersed in security-related issues, acting as security consultant to clients including Trans World Airlines and several New York City hotels.

He moved to Portland in 1991 with his then wife, Jeanette, who was from Oregon. The Slepians achieved a degree of media attention in 1992 when they became vocal defenders of Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., who was fighting the official and sexual misconduct allegations that eventually wrecked his political career.

Charles Slepian says they were not defending the senator's actions but believed he was entitled to a fair hearing.

Slepian is lucky to spend a few days a month in Portland now.

"Had it not been for 9/11, I would be spending more time in Oregon than I am," he says. "But (New York) is where the media is, and that is where I have to be."

"I would say he is pre-eminent in the field," said Joseph Sweeney, a Fordham law professor who asks Slepian to address his classes. "His specialty is what we call foreseeable risk analysis. There are very few people who attempt to cover the subject matter that he does."

Interviewed on television and radio or quoted in newspapers and magazines, Slepian repeats himself. He can't help it.

In 1986, he was hired by Trans World Airlines as a consultant on aviation security.

"What I learned shocked me beyond what I could possibly have imagined," he said. "The culture of crime was totally out of control in airports.

"One of the things that occurred to me was how vulnerable the aviation industry would be to an act of a terrorist," he said.

His interest in aviation security increased after the midair bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Aviation security has progressed since the Sept. 11 attacks, which led to creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, which supervises airport security.

Requirements that cockpit doors be reinforced and locked when an aircraft is in flight have made airplane hijackings unlikely, Slepian says, and scrutiny of passengers before boarding also makes it less likely that a terrorist will board a plane.

"An airplane in flight should not be hijacked because a hijacker could not get through the cockpit door and take control of the plane, and that is a huge deterrent for terrorists who want to hijack planes and use them as missiles," he says. "That's the one big victory that we have achieved in aviation security."

But the gaping hole in airport security, he asserts, is the "back door" that gives service workers and vendors access to aircraft and airport buildings.

"Workers for airports are not screened," he says. "There are 900,000 workers in 429 airports who have unfettered access to baggage, cargo and to airplanes. No one searches them. The industry says we do a background check, but a background check isn't good enough. It only tells you about people who have been caught doing crimes. The point is that you cannot have a different standard for people coming in the front door than you have for people coming in the back door."

Mike Irwin, federal security director for the Transportation Security Administration in Oregon, is aware of Slepian's critiques, but it's not that simple, he says.

Irwin acknowledges that all workers are not physically screened, although he says they are subject to random physical screening and to extensive background checks. And he says their access to the planes is controlled and supervised.

"If you were to physically screen every single airport employee, you would need hundreds of thousands of TSA workers to do that, and you wouldn't get any work done," he says. "I don't think any system is going to be perfect, but we are doing a very good job at applying a layered approach to mitigate any risk."

Not all security threats are in the air. Security, in a time of terror, can be big business. Slepian is holding to his commitment not to charge for writing and consulting on aviation. But he is expanding his Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center, hiring four associates in different parts of the country and redesigning his Web site at www.frac.com.

The company's areas of expertise include child protection, schools, travel, workplace and response to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

"We are spreading to virtually every aspect of security in which I have been involved these past 40 years," he says. "Because it is time now for all Americans to learn basically what they need to do to prepare themselves for events, whether man-made or national disasters, as we saw in New Orleans."