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  • Bombs, Swiss Cheese and Fools
    Posted by Bill Sweetman 5:34 AM on Dec 29, 2009

    Back in 1998 I interviewed Harry Stonecipher when he was president of Boeing (and Phil Condit was CEO) just after the company's manufacturing system had fallen apart. I asked him whether he was going to change the leadership of the Commercial Airplanes unit. "Firing people isn't the answer," he said.

    Three weeks later, he fired BCA boss Ron Woodard.

    It's easier with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. First, she should be placed under oath and directed to explain why terrorists will not now detonate their weapons 61 minutes before arrival. And then reconsider her job.

    Since the terrorist attempt Friday on Northwest/Delta flight 253, Napolitano has repeatedly said "the system worked." But it didn't. A terrorist was able to get a bomb aboard the airplane. It is no thanks to Napolitano that the passengers on 253 are alive, not in fragments in a warehouse somewhere, being identified by technicians. The system failed, but fortunately the bomb did too.

    Unfortunately for the rest of us. For a tiny cost, terrorists apparently have panicked officials into inflicting more damage on the global air transportation system, by imposing humiliation and discomfort on passengers, while not making the terrorists' job any harder.

    It's time to apply some serious security discipline to the protection of air transportation, on a global scale. This rests on the fact that no security measure is perfect. But if there are multiple measures in place, the attacker can't count on the imperfections to line up - link several slices of Swiss cheese - and has a much more difficult task.

    Today's system wastes a huge amount of time and money searching people who are not homicidal maniacs - and this is the incontrovertible fact behind all the arguments about "profiling." Not only are most passengers not bombers, but most passengers are linked to a mass of data, an electronic identity that makes it easy to confirm that they are unlikely suspects.

    Yes, some people will argue, but there's always the chance that a 44-year-old woman who's lived in Des Moines for 16 years and has travelled 20 times a year on business, on average, for the last decade has suddenly decided to become a suicide bomber. There is a chance, but it is a very small one, and if terrorist groups have to start recruiting in that demographic it will put a big crimp in their activities. Which is what we want.

    So one way to greatly improve aviation security would be to take advantage of what we already know about people. Offer passengers a smart card, linked to a security rating - akin to a credit rating, based on personal details, life events, a travel record, the data trail behind the ticket and other factors, rated against the profile of known attackers.

    (Privacy? Count yourself lucky if that's all anyone knows about you. The other day I was dealing with a bank online: In 30 seconds it was asking me to confirm what city a family member lived in, and it knew where I lived - 25 years ago. That horse is not just out of the barn - it has galloped across the open plain into the sunset.)

    Use any of several hard-to-spoof biometric systems to match the card to the holder - they have to be better than photo IDs, and I speak as a person bearing not the slightest resemblance to my passport photo - and your high-rated passengers can sail through. Maybe not every time - I'd happily trade the imbecile shoes/jacket/laptop routine for a once-in-10 thumbprint scan and explosives check - but at least most of the time.

    Then you can get rid of the low-paid, bored-to-death screeners doing the same thing over and over again and focus on the low-rated types. I'd guess that the alleged flight 253 bomber would have been among them: boarded in Nigeria, paid cash, no bags, 20-30 years old and male.

    The absence of any kind of critical thinking along those lines is why Napolitano maybe should be fired. But that would reflect badly on her boss, and what we've seen in the last year is that, ultimately, that's what matters in Washington.

    Tags: ar99, security, DHS, flight 253

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