Government official: Explosives on planes cannot be detected

Consistent warnings about the failures of airport security systems fall on deaf ears.

WASHINGTON—For years now, ever since PanAm 103 exploded over Scotland just before Christimas, 1988, the US government has received one warning after another that our air security system does not work — it
was a disaster waiting to happen. Nothing was done. The airline lobbyists in Washington fought off efforts to tighten security and do such things as reinforce cockpit doors because of cost and discomfort to passengers. An Investigation into PanAm 103 by former Vice President Al Gore went nowhere. In fact, his investigation was accused of deliberately dropping the ball after the airlines pumped money into the 1996 Clinton-Gore re-election campaign. 9/11 came and went.There has been no substantial improvement. In fact, the 9/11 Commission went out of its way to ensure nothing happened. It took the extraordinary step of blocking publication of a critical report on air security prepared by its own staff in the summer of 2004 until after the  presidential election. This subject, involving the general health and well being of the general public, might have become a topic for debate in the presidential election. The Commission made sure that didn’t happen.

Although the FAA had received one warning after another of an imminent attack during the first six months of 2001, nobody did anything. The Commission held no one accountable. Congress took no action. The US government had created a special anti-terrorist unit inside the FAA called the Red Team–special operations people, guised as terrorists, whose job it was to test airport security. They walked through security almost at will, over 400 times at the San Francisco airport. They went through Boston’s Logan airport with no trouble. In fact, a Fox TV reporter, accompanied by former undercover ops people, walked through Logan’s security during the spring of 2001. Just like the hijackers did the morning of 9/11, their faces captured by surveillance TV. Massachusetts Senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was alerted. He did nothing. People on the Red Team and other FAA on the ground personnel became near hysterics trying to warn the US government what was about to happen. They went to the FAA commissioner, the Inspecter General of the Transportation Department. They wrote letters, sent angry emails. The government never paid them any heed, and to this day, ignores them.

Warnings by a British agent who had penetrated the plot group led to yesterday’s arrests and the alarm. Homeland Security says the US knew about the plot for several weeks. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the NYPD had known about it for months. The government banned liquids yesterday and reassured people its explosive testing machines could spot explosives. That is not true. As the Washington Post reported Friday
morning, “…the so-called puffer machines cannot detect well-packaged liquid explosives, nor were they designed to identify common bomb-making components such as acetone or hydrogen peroxide….”

“The essence of the issue,” the anonymous official told the Post, “comes back to: Do we have the technical capabilities of detecting those particular elements, and are our procedures adequate to prevent those elements from getting onto the plane? In both of those answers, no…the only course of action we have is to abolish those liquids and gels.”

In that case, why weren’t liquids and jells banned months ago when the NYPD started looking into the plot. Why weren’t they banned back in 1994, when Ramsey Yosuf  used a small bottle of nitroglycerine, a Casio watch and a couple of batteries to build, and successfully test, a bomb that was meant to blow up a dozen planes over the Pacific — the Bojinka plot as it came to be known. That plot  failed not by any action of intelligence agents, but because of a mistake by the plotters that ended up exposing them. The plot exposed yesterday followed along similar lines.

The answer is all too obvious. The struggling, bankrupt airlines might lose passengers. It would cost too much. People would grow angry and stop flying. The same old story.

VIDEO: Angry Red Team Members Speak Out  –Long before 9/11, the FAA’s own employees repeatedly warned the agency terrorists could penetrate the nation’s air security systems. As members of the agency’s Red Team, a small group of former special ops personnel, disguised as terrorists, were assigned to test the airport systems.


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  • James Ridgeway is a former senior correspondent at Mother Jones and a 2012 Soros Justice Media Fellow. For more of his stories, click here.