Truth with consequences

October 22, 2003

IF THE PURPOSE of purported civil protester Nathaniel T. Heatwole was to rekindle chilling questions about U.S. airline security, he succeeded.

How can a person carrying post-terror-alert contraband get through six security screenings on six separate occasions?

How can a person e-mail the agency charged with airline safety and claim he is responsible for leaving bogus terror packages on planes - and leave his name and phone number - and then not be immediately apprehended and interrogated?

How did these box cutters sit for weeks undetected in four passenger jets? Why didn't a complete search of all jets follow the discovery of such objects, along with cryptic notes, in two jets in April?

How can travelers trust an agency that wants privacy-invading powers but can't read and react to its e-mail properly?

The Transportation Security Administration has a lot to answer for.

As evidence that the skies are safer, the agency has offered up its hiring and training of 50,000 new federal airport screeners. It has pointed to millions of knives, nail clippers and other potential weapons that didn't get past screeners, calling this success.

Perhaps Mr. Heatwole didn't know there already was proof of gaps in that safety net - including two recent federal reports that detailed training failures among security screeners, and the experience of the TSA's own security testers who have managed to slip scores of fake bombs and weapons past screeners. Or perhaps the college junior thought the outcry over safety lapses wasn't loud enough.

To be sure, the TSA has made progress, including requiring that cockpit doors be reinforced, adding armed marshals to many flights and scanning all bags and many passengers. Because the safety net cannot be made impermeable, these reinforced layers are welcome.

But more must be done.

TSA officials say they will revamp how they read agency e-mail and review their other screening and reporting procedures. The officials must explain all their methods in newly scheduled hearings before the Senate Commerce and the House Government Reform committees.

While one could argue with Mr. Heatwole's alleged methods - part of civil disobedience is disagreeing in a way that doesn't cause others to fear - one can't dispute the result. Mr. Heatwole, who is currently banned from flying, may have succeeded at making air travel safer for law-abiding citizens and more difficult for those whose purposes are sinister.

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