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This failure should sound the alarms

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by Mitch Albom
Free Press Columnist
October 21, 2007

This should make you angrier than you have been over almost anything since
Sept. 11 — and that includes the war in Iraq.

A recent report showed that 75% of fake bombs or bomb parts got past Transportation
Security Administration security at Los Angeles International Airport and 60%
got past TSA screeners at Chicago’s O’Hare.

Those are two of the busiest airports in the world. Those are two of the juiciest
targets a terrorist could desire.

Seventy-five percent? Three out of four times? We are constantly hearing the
tired and misguided phrase “fight ‘em over there so we don’t have to fight
‘em here.”

They needn’t bother with us over there. With a 75% chance of success, why would
they go anywhere BUT here?

The heart of the matter

Now, the reason this news should have you outraged — and more importantly,
why our president and his national security team should be outraged — is this
failure draws a straight line to the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and that
field in Pennsylvania six years ago.

Unlike Iraq, which had nothing to do with the actual explosions of Sept. 11,
airport security was at the heart of that tragedy. Tighter security, from passenger
identity to spotting box cutters, could have thwarted that day.

Can you imagine how our lives would be different if those 19 hijackers had
been stopped? Think about every security issue you now face in daily life, think
about the economic drain on this nation, think about the war, the lives lost,
the political hate, and all of it goes back to how those men got on those planes.

So you would think, before throwing hundreds of billions at a conflict in Iraq,
the first, the biggest, the most obvious use of money and effort would be at
the real ground zero of the Sept. 11 terrorism plan — the airports.

Instead, six years after the fact, we still have disinterested agents. We still
have inferior equipment when better equipment is available. We still have more
emphasis on stuff rather than on interrogating people. And we still have federal
officials making excuses. The latest comes from TSA chief Kip Hawley, who, in
response to previous bad results, blamed harder tests.

According to USA Today, Hawley told a House committee this week: “We moved
from testing of completely assembled bombs … to the small component parts.”

Yeah? So? You expect terrorists to put a completely assembled bomb in an empty
briefcase and slide it on the belt?

A very flawed system

Don’t laugh. That, in fact, is actually how examiners used to test agents,
by putting fake bombs in empty suitcases. You know what? There were still failures.

Now, examiners pack things like detonators or batteries inside a toiletry kit,
or they hide watch-timers in carved-out books. And because of that, our TSA
chief is justifying these unacceptable numbers? This is like a kid saying, “Well,
of course I failed the math test. You wanted me to add AND subtract!”

The fact is, there is no excuse. None. And President George W. Bush, who vows
to keep this nation safe, should be the loudest and harshest critic.

After all, it was the government that insisted on taking over airport security
after 9/11, saying we couldn’t trust such critical work to lowly paid private
screeners. So the TSA was formed, and we doubled or tripled the pay, and what
do we get? We get 75% at LAX and 60% at O’Hare. Meanwhile, the same tests showed
that the San Francisco airport — which employs private screeners — allowed
only 20% of the fake bomb equipment through.

And private screeners are what we had before the TSA. We’re going backward.

I travel more than most people, so I am not shocked. Sadly, many of the TSA
people I see seem more interested in their next break than what or who is going
through security. I often see dazed looks, bored postures, shared jokes between
agents.

The TSA should be ashamed. And if — or when — there is another attack involving
planes, and everyone, as always, goes looking to blame someone, we can go back
to these pathetic results, we can go back to 75% and 60%.

And we can blame ourselves.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.