Rethinking Security

Nov. 8, 2001


Recommendations from a former Northwest security chief

By John Boyce, Contributing Editor

November/December 2001

SAN ANTONIO, TX — Douglas R. Laird says terrorists are not stupid. He emphasized in an address to the 47th Annual Seminar of the American Society for Industrial Security, and in subsequent interviews, that while he guesses "that we’ve seen the last of the aviation terrorist attacks," he can’t guarantee that condition will hold if we aren’t vigilant.

Laird, a retired U.S. Secret Service agent, is the former Security Director for Northwest Airlines and now vice president of International Consulting Services, a security consulting firm headquartered in Minnetonka, MN.
Noting the increased security at U.S. airports following the attack and the increased presence of law enforcement and National Guard troops, just like during the Gulf War in 1991, Laird, while not endorsing guards and police as a panacea, draws a parallel to what happened ten years ago.
"During the Gulf War," Laird says, "there were close to 400 incidents of sabotage directed at American institutions overseas. Of those 400 events —bombings, mostly — none occurred at airports. The reason was that there was a heavy concentration of police (at airports). The terrorists are not stupid. They went down and blew up the city ticket offices. They study the system and they go after the soft target. That’s what has people petrified now; our government has no idea what the target is. You can’t protect everything."
"Airlines are tempting targets," says Peter Probst, an authority on terrorism and another speaker at the seminar. If terrorists can hit airlines, he says, they can create fear of flying, disrupt the economy, perhaps tip it into recession, erode public trust of the government, and so on. That’s the terrorists’ goal.
While Laird and Probst think that subsequent terror attacks are almost a certainty, they don’t think they will be coming through aviation simply because of the heightened security at airports. At least while the country is on high alert. But, Laird says, the history of security in this country indicates that it is event-driven; the country reacts to events such as those on September 11. However, any relaxation of that security in aviation would have terrorists again looking for the "soft spot."

Planning for Disaster
SAN ANTONIO, TX — Planning for disaster is neither a pleasant nor an easy thing to do but businesses must do it if they are to foil or at least survive a terror attack.
That’s the message from John Magaw, acting executive director of the Office of National Preparedness within the Federal Emergency Management Agency, in his presentation at the 47th Annual Seminar and Exhibit of the American Society for Industrial Security here.
"Four things need to be done [by businesses]," Magaw says. "One, plan. That’s difficult because in business [planning] is taking out and not putting in. But you pay me now or you pay me later.
"Two, training. It’s difficult to get people away from what they’re doing today to train for something that might happen.
"Three, you have to have training exercises. Four, equipment. Gas masks and things like that have to be purchased and you have to train with them.
Magaw points out the importance of setting up a succession plan, should executives of companies not be available in an emergency. Saying that 12 CEOs or presidents died in the World Trade Center attack, Magaw asks rhetorically, "Do we have a succession plan? Where do we set up [business] again?’’ Magaw also suggests an incident command center should be planned for in the event of an emergency.

Looking for what went wrong on September 11, Laird says there was plenty of blame to go around. "The FAA failed because they set the (regulatory) bar at the wrong level to meet the threat," he says. "Intelligence agencies failed because they had no information; law enforcement failed because they had people in custody that were involved and never realized what the implications were. I mean there’s enough blame for everybody."
But rather than spend a lot of time assigning blame, Laird prefers to look at the current state of airport security and the American public’s role in it. He offers some ideas on how security could be improved and who should pay for it.
Laird says that Americans don’t understand what airport security really is. They don’t understand that the height of the bar that the FAA sets will have to be raised to what has previously been an unacceptable level. The public is going to have to endure more inconvenience — longer waits, body searches, etc. — than it is used to and is going to have to pay for it. He doesn’t agree that the FAA should take over screening at U.S. airports.
"I am a proponent of the European model (of airport security)," Laird says. "You hear it in the news all the time about doing it the European way but people don’t understand what the European way is.
"In Europe, as in the United States, the screening is done by private companies. In fact, the companies that do the screening in Europe do the screening in the United States. The difference is the security bar is set at a different level. It’s not that they (the companies) don’t know how to do security, it’s just that the security they do in the U.S. is prescribed by the FAA.
"So what are we going to gain by letting the FAA take over security? I don’t think we gain anything. What has to happen, as in the rest of the world, the FAA needs to write the regulations, then it’s up to the private companies to carry out the screening function to meet the level. Then there should be another government entity — not the FAA, but from Justice [Department] or Homeland Security, or somewhere — that’s independent of the FAA and makes the thing work. You cannot have a situation where you write the regulation and you enforce the regulation, because there’s a conflict of interest. I can’t think of another country in the world where it’s done by the same agency within government.’’

Security costs money — lots of money. That, according to Laird and others, is the seed bed for the blossoming of problems. Who pays? The government? The airlines? The passengers? Currently, the government, through providing technology and oversight, and the airlines, through hiring screening companies, share the cost of security at airports. Of course, the passengers pay indirectly through their ticket prices.
For Laird, aviation security should not be a bottom line item. The airlines, for instance, should not have to pay for the security personnel because market forces demand that they pay as little as possible, and paying as little as possible is not the way to hire and retain a well-trained cadre of screeners.
Laird highlights his point by noting the irony of how the airlines have responded to September 11. The airlines, obviously, were hit hard economically by the public’s general fear of flying following the attack and they have cut thousands of jobs in an attempt to compensate. Congress stepped in with a $15 billion bailout plan.
However, Laird says, "As I speak, the airlines are going to receive a $15 billion bailout but they are systematically eliminating people that work in their security departments. They are eliminating hazardous goods officers, cutting security employees such as security coordinators."
Laird disputes the airlines’ current claim that they never wanted to handle security — in the early ’70s, he says, the airlines fought to do it — but nonetheless, "The airlines, in my opinion, should never have been allowed to take it in the first place because it’s a bottom line item." If, as the Gore Commission said, the potential for terrorist attacks is a national security issue, why are the airlines paying for national security?, Laird asks.
Convinced that as long as airlines have to pay the system won’t improve, Laird suggests that passengers pay for their own security with a security surcharge tacked on to the price of the ticket.
"The eternal question is always cost," Laird says. "There has been talk of a security surcharge (for passengers). I think that makes a lot of sense.’’
In fact, Laird says, when he was at Northwest Airlines in the early ’90s, the airline proposed to the FAA that it be allowed to create a small surcharge by taking its number of passengers and dividing that number into the security budget — $32 million in 1991.
Explains Laird, "We would charge each passenger 23 cents. That 23 cents would go into an aviation trust fund and at the end of the year, if it cost us more than $32 million, I’d eat it. If there was less than $32 million, I would give the excess to the FAA for R&D." The proposal died in bureaucracy.

A Call for Universal Access
SAN ANTONIO, TX — If we want to be sure that people who enter secure or sterile areas at all U.S. airports are good risks for being there, we should have a national standard for establishing the credentials for being there.
So says Douglas R. Laird, a retired U.S. Secret Service agent, former Security Director for Northwest Airlines and now vice president of International Con-sulting Services, a security consulting firm headquartered in Minnetonka, MN.
As it is, Laird says, each airport has its own criteria for certifying access to secure areas. "We should have universal access," Laird says, "for airline employees, pilots, flight attendants, mechanics so that they have an ID card that is recognizable nationwide.
"I think there should be a national standard enforced by the FAA.’’

Although there are a multitude of issues that need to be addressed in permanently strengthening aviation security in the U.S., the core issue has to do with human factors, Laird says. In response to the potential for terror in the air, the U.S. has developed some of the most sophisticated technology for detecting explosives and trace elements in the world. However, it is humans who have to operate and monitor that technology and that is an area that has been neglected.
"Nobody has done much with human factors," Laird says. "How much you pay and that sort of thing. We, as a society, like technology and so most of what FAA has done has been on the technology side.... We spend more money by putting in more equipment, but at the end of the day, the most important function is human factors.’’
Turnover of airport security screeners has reached as much as 400 percent at some airports and averaged 126 percent per year in the late ’90s, according to an FAA survey. There are, of course, many elements to the reason for that kind of turnover, including working conditions and boredom, but the primary element is low compensation for screeners. Laird doesn’t give a complete answer to the turnover problem, but suggests that in some measure the job should be professionalized.
Harking back to the European model, Laird thinks the FAA should license security screening companies and license the individual screeners. But perhaps most important, he continues, the screeners should be paid a living wage.
Laird says of screening, "I don’t think there is anybody in this room, with the extreme boredom, that would last more than six hours. You don’t pay me enough to do this job. The stress is terrible.
"The selection process can improve but with screening companies only wanting a warm body, they’re not worried about the selection process, they’re worried about hiring an individual.’’ The companies are more cost conscious than they are safety conscious, he says.

Europeans, Laird adds, pay their screeners enough money so that they are trained well and retained long enough to get recurrent training and become experienced at the job. Perhaps more important, supervisors get extensive training. "At some airports in the U.S.," Laird says, "the turnover is so great that all they do is train people. They get good enough to pass the FAA test but (because of turnover) they never get very good. I would liken it to taking the driver test when you’re a kid. You pass, but you’re not a very good driver. A couple of years later you’re better because you have some experience.
Laird thinks the most important issue to prevent another September 11 ("more important than anything else") is the issue of making the cockpit doors on aircraft impenetrable during flight.
"If you want to break a system," Laird continues, "you study it for a while then you find a way to defeat it. It doesn’t matter what you do, they’re going to defeat the system.... So what you want to do is ensure that there is a way to get that airplane on the ground, and the best way is to put in the (reinforced) cockpit door and reinforce the bulkhead.
"The technology is here now, it’s just a matter of nobody wanting to spend the money. Again, money is the root of all of this."