WASHINGTON, D.C.—For at least 25 years, the Federal Aviation Administration failed one test after another when it came to airport security. Undercover agents walked through airport checkpoints toting machine guns on their backs and bombs stashed in their carry-on luggage. Agents easily breached security precautions, breezing past locked doors to enter empty planes, mingling behind the scenes with ground crews.
What did the government do? Nothing. Now there are more studies. A so-called confidential report leaked to The New York Times last Sunday reports that air security could be improved with amazingly simple and relatively inexpensive steps to better screen both bags and people. They include such things as making longer tables on which passengers deposit their carry-on luggage while going through security checkpoints and locking exit doors through which deplaning passengers leave and through which any terrorist could walk aboard.
Some suggestions seem obvious, like having a cop with a gun at the checkpoints. “If, say, a handgun were discovered,” the report says, “the terrorist would have ample ability to retain control of it. [S]creeners are neither expecting to encounter a real weapon nor are they trained to gain control of it.”
This confidential study was prepared by Northrop Grumman, the big defense contractor, and the staff of the Department of Homeland Security.
Northrop Grumman has every reason to be making studies like this because it is socked into the potentially large and lucrative homeland security business along with the other major Pentagon contractors. One of the company’s big projects is to develop defense systems that can be put on commercial airliners to protect against heat-seeking, shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles. Named the Guardian, this system is to be tested this year. Northrop Grumman is involved in other ways. The company says its Mission Systems sector “is a premier supplier supporting the spectrum of homeland security initiatives.”
The company is also up to its eyeballs in politics. Within the defense industry, the Center for Responsive Politics reports, Northrop Grumman was the No. 2 contributor to federal candidates and parties in the 2004 election cycle. (No. 1 was Lockheed Martin.) Northrop Grumman contributed $1.688 million, two-thirds of it to Republicans.
As to the studies about airport and airplane security, 17 years after Pan Am 103 went down over Lockerbie, the FAA still lets the airlines tell it what to do. “The facts remain the facts,” says Steve Elson, a former undercover FAA security officer who tried to warn the agency it was on the edge of disaster. “It is still child’s play to knock down 50 airplanes in a few hours’ span with near 100 percent chance of success, and probably quite easy to fly a plane into the White House or Congress.”
Additional reporting: Natalie Wittlin, Halley Bondy, and Christine Lu