Not Safe Enough: Fixing Transportation Security; More Than Five Years after 9/11, the Federal Government Has Yet to Come to Grips with Basic Questions about Priorities, Roles, and Funding

By Johnstone, R. William | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Not Safe Enough: Fixing Transportation Security; More Than Five Years after 9/11, the Federal Government Has Yet to Come to Grips with Basic Questions about Priorities, Roles, and Funding


Johnstone, R. William, Issues in Science and Technology


In August 2006, British authorities announced that they had uncovered a plot in which liquid explosives would be used to destroy airliners en route from England to the United States. When the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) responded by banning all liquids and gels from passenger aircraft cabins, it was widely reported that such action was necessary because existing screening equipment could not detect the kind of explosives involved in the plot. This is perhaps understandable, given the daunting technological challenge of developing detectors that are not only sensitive enough to identify explosives from among the wide array of liquids routinely carried on aircraft, but also compact and affordable enough to be widely deployed and quick enough to not unduly impede passenger flow.

But this response comes 11 years after the similar Bojinka plot (a plan to bomb 12 U.S.-registered aircraft flying across the Pacific) was foiled in 1995, five years after the 9/11 hijackings that produced unprecedented attention and funding for aviation security, and two years after the 2004 law that sought to implement the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States' (9/11 Commission's) recommendation to prioritize the development and deployment of effective checkpoint explosives detectors. By itself, this is sobering, but when taken together with widespread evidence that such limited progress is the rule rather than the exception across all transportation security programs, a fundamental reassessment is in order about how the United States is approaching this issue.

Although customs agents or checkpoint screeners are often the focus of published reports on security lapses, the shortcomings in the current system do not rest primarily with the front-line personnel charged with implementing transportation security. Rather, the problem is that the Bush administration and Congress have failed to adequately address the key, big-picture questions about the management, funding, accountability, and, above all, priorities for the emerging transportation security system. Although progress in bolstering transportation security has been made since 9/11, additional action is needed to remedy continuing deficiencies.

Before September 11, 2001, U.S. transportation security was limited in extent and purpose. Transit police and subway surveillance cameras sought to deter or detect criminal activity. Customs agents at ports looked for smugglers. In aviation, the only sector that had received significant security policy attention and resources from the federal government, the emphasis was overwhelmingly directed overseas. The events of 9/11 altered all of that. The federal government responded with a flurry of initiatives, including:

* The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, which created TSA to be responsible for the security of all transportation modes and established deadlines for the implementation of specific aviation security measures.

* The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, which set security guidelines for ports and ships.

* The Homeland Security Act of 2002, which established the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) by combining 22 federal agencies, including TSA, the Coast Guard, the Customs Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

* The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which turned many of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, including those relating to transportation security, into statutory mandates.

The expanded policy attention was accompanied by a substantial rise in federal funding for transportation security, which increased from well under $200 million in fiscal year (FY) 2001 (almost all of which went for aviation security) to more than $8.5 billion in FY 2006, with 70% devoted to aviation.

As a result, improvements have been made in many areas of transportation security during the past five years. …

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