standard Security and risk in the US since 9/11

After the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) and the Pentagon, there is still much work to be done in how security, terror and risk are understood and prepared for in society.  Like financial crises, it is not so much a matter of if it will happen, but when it will happen.  The goal of increased security intelligence is to mitigate risk of any terrorist attack, but a recent review of national security in the US from the federal and state levels, all the way to the security technologies used by airports, shows that vulnerabilities do exist and they need to be addressed as soon as possible.  The 9/11 attacks not only changed how the United States viewed the risk of terror, but resonated with countries throughout the world who have experienced terrorist attacks since that tragic event, including the 7/7 bombings in London, the bombing of commuter trains in Madrid, the Belsan school hostage crisis in Russia that killed 330 people (mostly children) and a whole list of others.

The 9/11 Commission’s report, while literary in tone and revealing of a number of important details about the attacks, still only provides a limited scope of what actually took place before and after the attacks.  There were a number of testimonies left out of the report including one given by a former translator for the FBI, Behrooz Sarshar, who said he had knowledge of a ‘kamikaze pilot’ plan to attack the US.  He was formally interviewed by the 9/11 Commission who received pressure from the 9/11 Family Steering Committee to take Sarshar’s testimony and although a memorandum of this meeting is available online, it is heavily edited, with much of its content omitted.  Sarshar said he had written to FBI Director Robert Mueller twice about what he knew, but did not do so until  November 2002 and again in January 2003, long after the attacks.  When asked why he waited so long to bring forward this information ‘he said he didn’t want to do any damage to the FBI’.  Sarshar’s and other potentially useful testimonies were left out of the 9/11 Commission’s report.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Lee Hamilton, vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, said ‘…information today is shared much, much better than it was prior to 9/11, not yet where it ought to be, not yet seamless, but better’.  Poor communication or lack thereof were both large contributing factors in the failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks.  According to the 9/11 Commission’s report that was released in 2004, the Federal Aviation Authority while having knowledge that there were multiple hijackings taking place in American airspace, failed to alert other airlines.  Although the FAA claimed that at 9:07am FAA controllers at Boston Air Traffic Control Center told the Herndon Air Traffic Command Center to send out messages to airborne aircraft to increase security for the cockpit, the 9/11 Commission found no evidence of any such action.  If they did send out warning messages, it would have been around 21 minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North tower of the WTC in New York City.

The FAA said it was ‘the air carriers’ responsibility to notify planes of security problems and not their place to tell airlines what to tell their pilots’.  In the case of United Airlines, a dispatcher sent a warning to United 93, the hijacked flight that failed to reach its target.  Unfortunately, it was too late and the plane was already under the control of the terrorist hijackers.  If not for the rebellion that took place on United 93 by passengers on board it could have likely made it to Washington D.C. causing more havoc by crashing into one of a number of vulnerable sites, including the White House.  The 9/11 Commission said the passenger rebellion on United 93 was key to preventing it from reaching its target as the military had not been prepared to shoot down the hijacked flight.  Other than communications, there is also the problem of how the hijackers were able to slip through airport security so easily and efficiently.

According to the 9/11 Commission’s report, some of the hijackers who boarded American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the South Tower of the WTC, were ‘selected for extra scrutiny’ by airport security.  The hijacker named Nawif al Hazmi set off alarms for the first and second metal detectors and passed hand wand inspection.  The 9/11 Commission found video footage that shows an unidentified item in his back pocket, but Hazmi was simply sent on his way.  For each group of people who hijacked one of four planes in the attacks, only one person was prevented from boarding his flight by an immigration inspector at Florida Orlando International Airport; this was for flight United 93.

While there was no evidence found of explosive devices onboard any of the hijacked flights on 9/11, technologies to build bombs have surpassed the ability to detect them: ‘Even with what we all go through [at US airports], it doesn’t detect the latest kind of bombs that terrorists could build, Hamilton told NPR.  This includes bombs that can be surgically hidden inside the human body.  Hamilton said that current security measures at airports can’t detect these kinds of explosives.

According to Prof Jimmie C. Oxley, a professor of chemistry in the US at the University of Rhode Island and co-director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center of Excellence in Explosive Detection, Migration and Response, it would be ‘tough to carry out such an effort successfully’ assuming that the suicide bomber would still need to recover after the ordeal.  Oxley, a chemist who is an expert in explosives has studied non-traditional explosives especially those that are liquid-based.  She emphasises problems with their detection in her research (see her paper Non-Traditional Explosives).  Interestingly, one of the problems with researching explosives that can be used in terrorist attacks is open communication between scientists and technology suppliers.  This is indeed not only the case for those researching explosives, but also other forms of security such as camera surveillance (see Risk, surveillance and power).  This problem of researchers getting access to information they need for scientific research that can be used to prevent or deter acts of terrorism has still yet to be resolved, and will likely be an ongoing issue.

A report from the National Security Preparedness Group, the successor to the 9/11 Commission, reported a number of improvements made in US security, but also shortcomings in many areas including disaster planning.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) implemented a pilot program in five states to ‘integrate state and federal catastrophic planning’ in 2008.  A few years earlier, Hurricane Katrina revealed that systems at a state and federal level had failed to manage the aftermath of the disaster, not to mention the fact that the US government was wholly unprepared to deal with the disaster.  The report says ‘gaps’ were found in disaster planning between FEMA and some states.  Here are some of the other areas identified by the report where the current US national security system is still deficient:

  • The new aviation screening system, including whole body scanning machines, raise privacy and health concerns not fully addressed by the Department of Homeland Security and ‘still falls short in critical ways with respect to detection’.
  • The Transportation Security Administration did not conduct and complete testing and evaluation of new technologies to ensure that they work where they are used, but also failed to include cost/benefit information while acquiring new technology. ‘As a result, significant amounts of money have been wasted and the GAO [Government Accountability Office] continues to identify serious holes in virtually every security layer. Given the threat we face to our transportation systems, we cannot afford to perpetuate these mistakes’.
  • New standards for obtaining forms of identification in the US have not been implemented by more than one-third of states and the deadline for compliance has continued to be pushed back.  The deadline is currently set for January 2013.
  • When housing prisoners who are alleged terrorists, the US government needs to comply with the Geneva Convention ‘as well as international and customary law on the treatment of prisoners.  Also, lack of evidence against prisoners who are accused of terrorist crimes and ‘problematic evidence’ based on the way it was obtained requires the direct attention of the US President and Congress.


Tenth Anniversary Report Card: The Status of the 9/11 Commission Recommendations. Bipartisan Policy Center

The 9/11 Commission Report.  National Commission on Terrorist Attacks

Ten Years After 9/11, How Safe Is the U.S. Against Terror Attacks?. National Public Radio (US)

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