The American operative furtively approached his objective. Despite the challenge of slipping unnoticed into one of the most secure compounds in the world, he moved with confidence. Utilizing nimble moves and cunning savvy, he bypassed barriers, beat security systems, and baffled armed guards. Up and away he went, into the mother of all targets, accessing sensitive areas while defenders were none the wiser to his presence. At last, he reached ground zero, the pinnacle of the mission, and victory was his.
And then he did what anyone would do in his position: He started taking pictures of the breathtaking New York City skyline, enjoying the view atop America’s tallest building for a staggering two hours. Before being arrested.
It turns out our "operative" was simply a 16-year-old thrill seeker. That’s right. A child with a thirst for adventure eluded all security personnel and the "elaborate" security systems defending the new 1 World Trade Center and enjoyed free reign throughout the building, making it all the way to the antenna spire.
The head of the port agency with jurisdiction over the building stated that officials "take security and these types of infractions very seriously."
Really? Because if security at the Freedom Tower — still the No. 1 target of terrorists hell-bent on one-upping their 9/11 feats — was taken "very seriously," how could this happen?
America has the capability of employing the best security in the world, a step above everyone else. But having it and using it are two different things, and the fact that we are still making inexcusable mistakes should come as a shock to no one. Ever since 9/11, we have been relying on Lady Luck to protect us against attack, and the good lady just saved us again, since a terrorist blowing off the tower’s spire would have seen the markets crash and panic grip the nation.
Since our luck will run out one day, maybe we should start enacting policies that are actually proactive so that we don’t have to wonder, "How’d that happen?" the next time we get hit or a plane goes missing.
But don’t hold your breath, because for whatever reason, we have jettisoned common sense, content that luck will continue to save the day.
The potentially catastrophic Freedom Tower breach is anything but isolated, as there have been numerous near-calamities that should have been avoided:
» The Times Square bomber, whose ineptitude was our only saving grace, boarded a plane despite fitting the terrorist profile, bought a one-way ticket to the Middle East in cash, and just happened to be on our No-Fly list. In the computer age, how we don’t have real-time access to every airline’s passenger records is unfathomable.
» The underwear bomber nearly took down a jumbo jet, failing only because of sheer incompetence. His father had begged U.S. officials to not allow him to board planes to America given his proclivity for terrorism. And what did we do? Let him board a plane to America.
» The shoe bomber bumbled his mission, yet his actions cost us billions in "security theatre," as the former head of the TSA called it, for measures that were knowingly ineffective and simply for show.
To top it off, the government still refuses to profile as the Israelis do, and pushed for allowing knives back on planes. Go figure.
If it’s that bad here, you know it’s worse everywhere else. Just look at Malaysia.
That nation’s investigation into the disappearance of Flight 370 has been pathetic from day one. Because of Malaysia’s ineptitude, resources weren’t allocated where they should have been, and now the plane may never be found.
Even more frustrating is that, despite all the lessons learned, many aviation experts predict little will change in how airlines and their regulators operate. And that is unacceptable.
1) How can two Middle Eastern men use stolen passports, which Interpol had flagged, to buy one-way tickets, in cash, and board the Malaysian plane (sound familiar?)? How, despite not knowing what happened to Flight 370, could officials have ruled out these two men being terrorists just days after the jet’s disappearance? And how did Malaysian officials know about the passport situation immediately after the plane went missing yet allowed them to board just hours before? In the age of lightning-quick, real-time computers, there is no reason this should ever occur. Anywhere.
2) Why are pilots still able to switch off a plane’s transponder? You’d have thought that flaw would have been corrected after 9/11. It hasn’t. And to all the aviation "experts," spare us the jargon-laced technical-speak for why it’s necessary. It’s not. It’s a stupid policy that has no place in our skies. We put a man on the moon half-a-century ago, but we can’t figure out a way to differentiate transponder signals for planes flying in crowded skies? Give us a break. No more manual on/off controls for transponders.
3) This takes the cake. We have GPS that can track trucks, taxis and even cellphones to within feet, but we don’t mandate that airlines install them on $300 million aircraft carrying hundreds of people and millions in cargo. Aircraft, by the way, which can be used as weapons of mass destructions. How soon we forget.
When people’s lives and the entire world economy could be shattered by bad guys hijacking a plane, it should be a no-brainer to mandate a real-time GPS tracking system on all commercial aircraft, and one that cannot be turned off. If that means a $10 surcharge per ticket, so be it. That’s the price we pay when taking to the sometimes unfriendly skies.
Let’s be very clear about where we stand. Nearly 13 years after 9/11, our pilots are still vulnerable since there are no bathrooms in the cockpit. And remarkably, should terrorists take over that aircraft, they still have the ability to fly an invisible jet thanks to no mandated GPS and the ability to go dark by turning off the transponder. A skillful pilot with the ability to fly under the radar could smash into virtually any target without being stopped, let alone tracked.
The solutions to these problems are simple, and fairly easy. What we need is bold leadership to see them through.
As Cal says in "Titanic," "A real man makes his own luck." It’s time the United States does the same by revamping flawed policies and getting serious about protecting America.
Otherwise, relying on a wing and a prayer will doom us to crash and burn.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected]