Failed airline bombing raises questions about cargo security.
By Eric Kulisch
The aviation security breakdown that enabled the unsuccessful attempt by a terrorist to blow up a Detroit-bound passenger flight from Amsterdam on Christmas Day could have implications for freight security across multiple modes of transportation.
The Nigerian suspect who hid explosives in his clothing was placed on a U.S. database of people suspected of terrorist ties in November after his father visited the U.S. Embassy in Lagos and warned that his son might be consorting with Islamic radicals in Yemen. But the information apparently wasn't enough to get him placed on a watch, or 'no fly,' list that would have resulted in secondary screening at the airport, or prevented him from boarding the plane. That's because he was put on the least restrictive of four possible terror watch lists and the list has a half-million names.
A subset of that database includes 400,000 names and within that is a list of 14,000 people that undergo secondary screening before boarding flights. Another 4,000 people are prohibited from flying on any commercial flight.
Almost nine years after 9/11, the government is still having trouble connecting the dots with information it already has in its possession but can't adequately analyze.
Larry Johnson, former deputy director of the Office of Counterterrorism at the State Department and current chief executive officer of Berg Associates, said the government is collecting so much information that it can't process and share it in an effective manner even though the Department of Homeland Security and intelligence agencies have created fusion centers for that purpose.
And, he said, DHS doesn't have high-performance explosive detection technologies for passengers and carry-on bags.
Johnson's analysis raises questions about parallel security efforts in the ocean and air cargo sectors.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection each week is collecting millions of pieces of advance import data from shippers as well as container status messages and stow plans from ocean carriers as part of the new Importer Security Filing rule. The information is in addition to advance ocean manifest data already being collected. All of it is being boiled down by computers in an effort to detect shipments from suspicious parties before they leave the port of origin. Customs says the information has already proven valuable in reducing risk scores for some shippers in the automated targeting system, and thus reducing their likelihood of inspection.
But how confident can we be that the risk management system's data analysis actually leads to the discovery of a terrorist device given other systemic intelligence failures?
There are no indications CBP has ever conducted a Red Team test in which in-house security experts posing as bad guys try to see if they can ship some sort of weapon through the global logistics system without being flagged for inspection.
Here's what Johnson said about the passenger security systems, including targeting methods, in a series of interviews on CNN following the failed terrorist attack. As you read, think about how the comments might apply to CBP's efforts to mesh the Automated Targeting System, its new IT-platform called the Automated Commercial Environment, the security profiles of companies in the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism and other sources of intelligence as it tries to make snap determinations about which containers to inspect for a smuggled nuclear device or other mass-effect weapon:
| 'The point of having the list sometimes, it seems, is just to have the list and say, 'Well, see, we had a list.' ' The system is not the kind of thing where people are used to in the movies to see someone sit at a computer, type in a name, and it pops up the information and the picture and all the information you need. That unfortunately is not happening here.
'(The lists) are worth something if they are used appropriately ' The National Counterterrorism Center was to be the place where we bring all intel together. So, what you find out if you go in and start probing, you find that there are multiple fusion centers around the country.
'In my book, anytime you get more than two fusion centers, you wind up with confusion. And that’s part of what’s going on here. The fact of the matter is that there is not a centralized depository. That we’re pretty good at getting the information in, but getting the information out and being able to search it and access in a timely manner, that’s still a big problem.'
Johnson said that intelligence sharing and passenger screening is somewhat better than it was on 9/11, but major problems still exist.
'Let me just give you a real quick illustration. About a year ago I was working on a terrorism exercise for the U.S. military. And it involved a scenario in the United States. And so, we wanted to look up and see who the current contact was at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency — who would be the point of contact. And I swear to God, when we got to their classified page and there was still Mike “heck of a job” Brown. He was on there and he hadn’t been in the job for three years.
'Now, that was on the government computer. They don’t even update their own computers with guys like (former director) Mike Brown. They still showed him on the list.
'So, you know, this image we sometimes get of government, that they are really on top of things and that they are, you know, moving the information back and forth — the sad reality is, you get enormous volumes of information in. They don’t have a real effective system for then taking it, processing it, and making sure that it’s consolidated so that the folks out there on the pointy end of the spear know who to go after, when and where.'
John Brennan, deputy national security advisor for counterterrorism, picked up on the theme of data overload in an interview on ABC's 'This Week.'
The information about the Nigerian bomber and other pieces of intelligence about a possible attack was shared between intelligence agencies, he said. The issue is 'there are millions upon millions of bits of data that come in on a regular basis. What we need to do is make sure the system is robust enough that we can bring that information to the surface that really is a threat concern.'
Johnson also pointed out that the United States has failed to develop adequate explosive detection technology for passengers and carry-on items even though it has known of tangible terrorist threats to sneak explosives on planes for 15 years.
'It is unacceptable that nine years or eight years after Richard Reid used the exact same explosive that we still don’t have a system in place that can detect that kind of explosive,' Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, concurred on the ABC program.
There are two primary explosive detection systems for checked baggage:
' Trace detectors that essentially sniff the air for explosive particles.
' Bulk detection systems such as CT technology that provides a penetrating, three-dimensional scan of an object with the aid of computer processing.
Passenger screening primarily consists of 1970s-era magnetometers that detect metal and X-ray machines for carry-on bags.
DHS also had to put into storage more than 150 'puffer' machines, which use blasts of air to stir up particles on one's clothing and analyze the air for explosives residue, because they didn't work well in the contaminated airport environment after performing well in the lab. It now plans to rush deployment of at least 300 whole-body scanners designed to detect non-metal explosives under clothes, in addition to 40 such machines already at airports, and encourage foreign aviation authorities to do the same.
Johnson said the CT scans are probably better than the trace detectors because the latter can be defeated. A skilled person can package an explosive in such a way that the device will not pick up trace elements of explosive. More research and development is needed for the bulk technology systems, he said.
Trace detection is one of the approved screening methods for piece-level cargo shipments on passenger planes. All cargo on passenger planes must be screened beginning Aug. 1 using one of several approved methods, including physical searches. The Transportation Security Administration is putting the onus on the private sector to do cargo screening and under the Certified Cargo Screening Program freight forwarders and dedicated security service providers are mostly using trace detection machines because they are much cheaper than X-ray machines.
Meanwhile, air cargo security is also complicated by the fact that no large-bore machine yet exists that can reliably view an entire skid or air container.
The United States still hasn't made it a priority to develop explosives detection technology for the aviation system, Johnson declared.
'It’s been a lack of dedicated funds on the part of the U.S. government to really put together, if you will, a Manhattan-style project to produce effective explosive detection systems. And the argument is well, because it is so rare.
'But there at least needs to be a concerted effort on it because up to this point, while we did make a good effort with TSA, trying to put professional screeners at the checkpoints, requiring checked baggage to go through an explosive detection system, we still treated it in a piecemeal fashion '
'Let's set up a specific budget item, dedicate the national laboratories. We've got all these Department of Energy national laboratories ' across this country initially in place to build nuclear weapons and prepare to deal with the Soviet threat. That threat’s gone away. These national labs have been looking for a mission in life. The one thing that no president has done, not President Clinton, not President Bush or not President Obama yet, is to marshal those national laboratories and say, 'Let's put a Manhattan Project together to develop viable technology that will detect explosives that people can hide on bodies.
'The good news we face is that fortunately the al Qaeda guys are fairly incompetent at this.'
But as Johnson says, you can't base your homeland security strategy on luck.
The folks at DHS may have been listening. Days after he spoke, Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a series of steps her department will undertake to enhance aviation security. They include establishing a partnership with the Department of Energy and its national laboratories to develop new and more effective technologies to detect and prevent potential threats and terrorists from boarding a plane. DHS will also readjust how terrorist watch lists are created and names are added to the 'No-Fly' and 'Selectee' lists.