The lessons to be learned from Lockerbie
"The first line of defense against civil aviation terrorism is the collection of accurate and timely intelligence concerning the intentions, capabilities, and actions of terrorists." -- President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism, 1990
The effective use of intelligence to take preventive security measures was a key consideration of the Commission. We found that the FAA had issued nine security threat bulletins prior to the bombing that could have been relevant to the tragedy.
One particular bulletin described a bomb disguised as a Toshiba radio -- much like the cassette radio that was believed to have actually destroyed the aircraft. Yet, despite this warning, Pan Am officials took no action. There was no Transportation Security Administration in 1988. The Federal Aviation Administration was then responsible for aviation security. It had no procedures in place to verify that all affected carriers received bulletin information, or to learn if airlines took any actions as a result of receiving a bulletin.
The commission recommended developing a specific unit within the intelligence community to better anticipate future terrorist strategies and tactics. Yet it took another tragedy, September 11th, and another commission - the 9/11 Commission -- to fully realize our recommendation. Congress created a director of national intelligence with the authority to break through the bureaucratic barriers that inhibited the flow of information, and a National Counterterrorism Center to function as a government-wide intelligence clearinghouse, fusing and analyzing terrorist threat information. I applauded these reforms.
Nevertheless, last week's White House review of the Christmas attack concluded that the government had sufficient information to place Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on a "no- fly" list, but failed to do so. Certainly, the fact that his father met with U.S. Embassy officers in Nigeria a month earlier to warn that his son was associated with extremists should have resulted in Abdulmutullab's inclusion on the terrorist watch list. Further, Abdumutullab exhibited behavior that would have raised warning flags even before 9/11: he paid in cash for his ticket and did not check any bags.
Whether this security failure stemmed from inadequate information sharing between elements of the intelligence community or the inadequate analysis of available information, the result is still the same: the intelligence was not used to take any measures to avert a potential catastrophe. Pan AM 103, September 11th, and now Northwest Flight 253, clearly demonstrate that aviation is, and will continue to be, a high value and high profile target for our enemies. Intelligence is our first line of defense, and we need to get it right.
Those of us who have spent decades overseeing the industry know that strong aviation security, as with safety, is founded on redundancy. Before the September 11 attacks, aviation security was based on a "moat mentality," setting up a security perimeter and regulating access to the aircraft and the tarmac area. The protective moat once began at the boarding gate. It later moved to the mouth of the concourse. Now, in many airports, the moat is at the ticket counter or the baggage check-in desk.
Inside the perimeter, we have hardened our targets. Passengers are subject to more thorough screening than anyone would have imagined before 9/11. On board the plane, the cockpit door has been reinforced, sky marshals are back, and passenger behavior is closely monitored.
This moat mentality failed to protect the passengers of Pan Am 103. It failed on 9/11, and it failed yet again on Christmas Day in Detroit.
The Department of Homeland Security has, since the Christmas attack, issued new directives to enhance physical screening of passengers. As the 9/11 Commission recommended, we must continue to give priority attention to improving the ability of screening checkpoints to detect explosives on passengers.
However, unless our intelligence community improves its ability to identify and share critical information, we will see more attacks like the attempt to bring down Northwest Flight 253.
And perhaps the next terrorist will succeed.
Jim Oberstar, DFL-8th District, is a member of the U.S. House and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.