Bad idea on air safety Anti-terror plan threatens mostly citizens' privacy

September 15, 1996|By Joan Beck

GRIEF AND ANGER over the explosion of TWA Flight 800 go unabated with the slow pace of the investigation into what is almost certainly a bombing.

Even the most intrepid airline passengers chilled as a jury last week convicted a Pakistani terrorist of planning to blow up a dozen U.S. planes flying over the Pacific in January 1995. The first bomb did explode on a flight from Manila to Tokyo, killing the passenger under whose seat it was planted, but the pilot managed to land the damaged 747 in Okinawa.

But neither the anger nor the fear justifies the measures the Clinton administration is pushing to improve air safety. The proposals announced last week are expensive, technologically impractical, probably futile and involve an unacceptable invasion of passengers' privacy.

The worst of the recommendations of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, headed by Vice President Al Gore, is a plan to develop computer profiles of all passengers, including information from law-enforcement agencies, past travel history, credit ratings and other data.

The aim of the "profiling" would be to pick out possible terrorist suspects, whose luggage would then be carefully screened for explosives. The commission assumed, correctly, that a close examination of all checked baggage would be too time-consuming and inefficient.

But however frightening, the threat of terrorism directed at airplanes doesn't justify this massive invasion of people's private lives. Computers do make it possible to generate a vast amount of data about each of us. So it's necessary to be vigilant and fight against its inappropriate use.

Such a screening system would probably have picked out Ramza Ahmed Yousef, the convicted Pakistani bomber, who will stand trial later this year for masterminding the World Trade Center bombing. But not all terrorists fit the same Mideastern stereotype as Yousef. And there is no known relationship between some of the data the commission proposed be used and a propensity to blow up a plane.

There are practical problems with the idea, too. Those investigating the TWA crash are increasingly convinced that whatever caused the explosion was not hidden in the checked luggage.

The bomb Yousef used in his attempt to bring down the Tokyo-bound plane was concealed under a passenger seat. Yousef boarded the plane in Manila, apparently hid the bomb under his seat and then got off in Cebu before it was set to explode.

The White House commission is also recommending spending more money on devices to detect explosives, so that the luggage of suspects turned up in the profiling system can be checked as quickly as possible. But current technology lags far behind the development of sophisticated bombmaking methods and is expensive and time-consuming.

The best explosives-detecting machine, the CTX5000, costs more than $1 million and is the only one certified by the Federal Aviation Administration as meeting its standards. Gore and his commission are expected to ask Congress for an emergency $300 million appropriation for air safety, most of it for airport detecting equipment.

Yousef is reported by the New York Times to be a specialist in developing explosives that easily can be carried onto a plane, such as a digital wrist watch turned into a timer and nitroglycerine concealed in a bottle for contact lens solution.

A sophisticated terrorist could assemble a bomb on board a plane from materials carried through airport security, hide it under a seat and leave it to go off after he has disembarked. An extremist, like those few who have deliberately committed suicide in their bombing attacks in Israel, might even be willing to set off an on-board explosive and die with it.

Other security measures the commission is recommending include more bomb-sniffing dogs at airports and better screening and training of airline and airport employees - all of which may help but won't solve the problem.

Airline crashes do hold a special horror, making them a favorite target for terrorists.

But even if the impossible, perfect security could be developed and tolerated by an impatient public, it wouldn't solve the problem of terrorism.

The world has too many other tempting targets for terrorists than airplanes and most of them lack security protections. Terrorists can drive a truckload of explosives into the underground garage of a crowded building, such as at the World Trade Center, or park it by the entrance, as in Oklahoma City.

Terrorists can cause hundreds of deaths by destroying bridges or tunnels or expressway interchanges or stadiums or convention centers or dams or theaters or churches on Sunday morning. And they need not use bombs to kill unsuspecting civilians.

They can release deadly gas, as happened in Tokyo, or biological agents.

And terrorists can strike at Americans abroad, in places where this country has little or no control over security measures. It makes more sense to deploy the anti-terrorism resources the government can muster to gaining information about dangerous groups and preventing terrorist acts - a strategy the director of the CIA says that agency is doing with increasing success.

President Clinton also should commit more U.S. resources to fighting terrorism on an international scale, in cooperation with other nations.

Terrorism is intolerable, of course. But it needs to be kept in perspective. If we allow fear to erode our civil rights and curtail our personal freedoms, all of us will be its victims and we will have helped it accomplish some of its goals.

Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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