ONE MONTH short of the fifth anniversary of 9/11, the United States awakened to news that British authorities had broken up a purported plot to use liquid chemical bombs to blow up as many as 10 American-owned planes as they flew across the Atlantic to the U.S. Officials and experts have said the plot had the “hallmarks” of an Al Qaeda/Osama bin Laden plan.
The cable networks breathlessly reported new rules: For now, limited carry-on luggage. Passengers may not bring on board any liquids -- water, drinks, lotions. Only liquid prescription medicine or breast milk would be allowed as carry-on aboard planes bound from Britain to the United States, and on all U.S. carriers.
As usual when it comes to homeland security, the authorities are way behind the curve.
It’s infuriating. During the mid-1990s, the U.S. took into custody two Kuwaiti men who had devised the technical plan for Operation Bojinka -- the name for a plan to blow up a large number of jumbo jets over the Pacific. In a test, the perpetrators in 1994 blew up an unsuspecting Japanese businessman in his seat on a Philippine domestic flight by wiring a device using a watch and liquid explosive disguised in a contact-lens case. This proved to the terrorists that they could get explosives aboard undetected.
Thanks to Philippine intelligence, the U.S. eventually arrested the two terrorists, Abdul Hakim Murad and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef. The two told the CIA about Bin Laden’s plans to knock down big buildings using planes and blow up airliners using small chemical bombs. That was in 1995. (Yousef was later convicted in the U.S. for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.)
Thursday, the British arrested 24 people, including one airport employee. Nine of those were allegedly set to board flights carrying mini-bombs disguised as everyday liquids. The liquids were to have been mixed together on board and turned into bombs. Authorities said the terrorist cell was believed to have as many as 50 members.
A few hours later, the Bush administration put on a dog-and-pony show, with elevated alert levels and the Department of Homeland Security barring liquids on U.S. flights. The Transportation Security Administration mentioned nothing about screening the 600,000 employees who work in U.S. airports or the airport contractors who service the planes. How hard would it be for one of them to substitute an explosive in a cola can or water bottle, or even in the liquids used to clean the planes?
It was business as usual for the TSA: Give passengers and the public the illusion of security but not the reality. One TSA official -- disgusted with the agency’s standard practice of putting on a strong show of security at the passenger screening checkpoints while ignoring yawning holes in security elsewhere in the civil aviation system -- has referred to it as “just more eye candy ... feel-good stuff.”
After spending $20 billion on aviation security, we still have not developed a defense against ideas terrorists had six years before 9/11. It doesn’t require a genius to figure out that terrorists might try a version of Operation Bojinka again.
There was a sense of absolute panic in the TSA’s announcement that liquids would not be permitted on airplanes. Yet security experts have been recommending for years that carry-on baggage be strictly limited. In 2001, the TSA did ban matches, box cutters and small knives. Then, in December, it started allowing them again. Though chastised in the report by the independent 9/11 commission for failing to act on information already in hand, the TSA has never forbidden the types of liquids it is now temporarily banning, even though it was fully aware of the Bojinka effort and Al Qaeda and Bin Laden’s penchant for going after targets until he succeeds in bringing them down.
We were fortunate this time, but we can’t depend that we will be again.