Monday, March 14, 2005

The Friendly Skies?

According to this report in the New York Times, all the money spent on upgrading security at the nation’s airports still leaves vulnerabilities at places like general aviation fields, ports, and railroad stations.

Despite a huge investment in security, the American aviation system remains vulnerable to attack by Al Qaeda and other jihadist terrorist groups, with noncommercial planes and helicopters offering terrorists particularly tempting targets, a confidential government report concludes.

Intelligence indicates that Al Qaeda may have discussed plans to hijack chartered planes, helicopters and other general aviation aircraft for attacks because they are less well-guarded than commercial airliners, according to a previously undisclosed 24-page special assessment on aviation security by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security two weeks ago.

But commercial airliners are also “likely to remain a target and a platform for terrorists,” the report says, and members of Al Qaeda appear determined to study and test new American security measures to “uncover weaknesses.”

[…]

The aviation sector has received the majority of domestic security investments since the Sept. 11 attacks, with more than $12 billion spent on upgrades like devices to detect explosives, armored cockpit doors, federalized air screeners and additional air marshals.

Indeed, some members of Congress and security experts now consider airplanes to be so well fortified that they say it is time to shift resources to other vulnerable sectors, like ports and power plants.

In the area of rail safety, for instance, Democrats are pushing a $1.1 billion plan to plug what they see as glaring vulnerabilities. “This is a disaster waiting to happen,” Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., Democrat of Delaware, said last week at a Senate hearing marking the one-year anniversary of the deadly train bombings in Madrid.

[…]

The report, dated Feb. 25, was distributed internally to federal and state counterterrorism and aviation officials, and a copy was obtained by The Times. It warns that security upgrades since the Sept. 11 attacks have “reduced, but not eliminated” the prospect of similar attacks.

“Spectacular terrorist attacks can generate an outpouring of support for the perpetrators from sympathizers and terrorism sponsors with similar agendas,” the report said. “The public fear resulting from a terrorist hijacking or aircraft bombing also serves as a powerful motivator for groups seeking to further their causes.”

The report detailed particular vulnerabilities in what it called “the largely unregulated” area of general aviation, which includes corporate jets, private planes and other unscheduled aircraft.

“As security measures improve at large commercial airports, terrorists may choose to rent or steal general aviation aircraft housed at small airports with little or no security,” the report said.

Speaking as someone who works less than a mile from one of the largest seaports in the country, not to mention the general aviation heliport just across the causeway, it kind of makes me wonder what good it does for me to get my nail clippers confiscated at MIA if I stand a chance of getting bombed (and not in a good way) at my desk.