Air Security Must Stay a Step Ahead

Posted February 20, 2004 at 10:11am

Baghdad. Boston. Manila. Mombasa. New York. Paris. Washington. The events of recent years illustrate one sobering point: Terrorism continues to pose a global threat to civil aviation.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, our nation and our allies have significantly stepped up our security efforts. In this country, we federalized the passenger screening system, armed hundreds of pilots, installed billions of dollars worth of high-tech screening equipment and deployed thousands of covert air marshals. Internationally, we have improved the coordination of intelligence gathering and information sharing. Worldwide, we have captured or killed thousands of dangerous terrorists.

Coordinated international efforts have been a cornerstone of our success. Continuing this cooperation will be a necessary part of the war against terrorism. Unfortunately, the high stakes have created strain among some of our international partners. We often hear grumbling about U.S. “unilateralism.” I make no apologies. Decisions here are made more quickly and are taken with domestic concerns uppermost in mind. Our response to each terrorist threat must be swift and decisive. Unfortunately, we cannot and will not wait for slow-moving international political consensus or allow local prerogatives to take precedence over international aviation security when American lives are at risk. Regrettably, the potential impacts on partners must become a secondary concern. The safety of the flying public will always be our No. 1 concern.

We must acknowledge that no security system is foolproof. Our system relies on multiple layers of deterrence and detection. Terrorists continue to probe and test our system for weaknesses. Intelligence suggests that our enemies continually adjust their tactics based on their findings.

Our enemy is patient, intelligent and resourceful. In 1993, Ramzi Yousef led a failed attempt to destroy the World Trade Center with a truck bomb. Two years later, a captured member of his cell described a plan to hijack commercial planes and ram them into CIA headquarters and other American landmarks. In 2001, more than eight years after its first attempt, al Qaeda completed Yousef’s original plan.

Our security system must continue to get smarter to stay ahead of those who would do us harm. Our will must match theirs. We need to put our egos aside in the name of international security. We have seen some improvement in overall international cooperation in recent months. In December 2003, after a year of talks, the United States and the European Union reached a tentative accord on rules relating to the sharing of passenger background information. Each EU member state must approve this agreement, but I am hopeful that this marks a new beginning.

We still have a difficult task before us. There are numerous items that require international attention. During this last code orange alert, the Homeland Security Department was forced to cancel dozens of trans-Atlantic flights due to “credible and specific” terrorist chatter targeting particular inbound flights from France and Britain. The United States continues to deploy armed air marshals on high-risk flights domestically and now requires high-risk flights heading to America to carry armed marshals. A number of our allies, including countries such as Portugal, Denmark, Finland and Sweden, are resisting this effort, deriding it as “Hollywood-style” security. We’ve taken our cue from our Israeli friends, and it would be in the best interest of European nations to do the same.

The United States has expended significant effort and expense to train volunteer pilots to carry firearms to defend the cockpit of their aircraft against hostile action. To this point, the State Department has been unable to secure agreements that would allow these highly trained individuals to fly armed internationally. These pilots would provide a crucial last line of defense if all other efforts fail.

In Kenya and Iraq, terrorists have fired shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles at commercial jets. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in either incident, but we cannot wait for our luck to run out. We must join together to develop a high-tech solution appropriate for the commercial environment to serve as a long-term answer to this threat. We must also pool resources to get these weapons off the black market and out of the hands of those with ill intent. Lastly, we must join together to create international pressure on rogue nations to commit to a policy of worldwide nonproliferation.

The world has become a dangerous place. Stopping terrorism should be the international community’s top priority. We take the responsibility for the safety and security for our nation very seriously. It’s not our preference, but if left no choice, we will go it alone.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.