Holes in airport security must be plugged

October 26, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

I UNDERSTAND the need to prosecute Nathaniel T. Heatwole.

After all, the 20-year-old college student from Damascus, Md., reportedly admits that earlier this year, he sneaked box cutters and other banned items aboard aircraft at the Raleigh-Durham and Baltimore-Washington airports.

He's even said to have e-mailed security officials, telling them where the items could be found and providing contact information.

Officials say Mr. Heatwole sought to demonstrate that there are still a few bugs in the airline security system two years after the Sept. 11 attacks. And though the idea that he could do up to 10 years for his act of civil disobedience seems exceedingly excessive, authorities haven't much choice but to prosecute him.

After all, they can't appear to encourage or condone a breach of security, even one with a laudable purpose.

Still, I'd be less than candid if I didn't admit that his alleged act, however illegal, strikes me as less a crime than a public service. And that the official response to it has not exactly been reassuring. Meaning in particular, this week's comment from Stephen McHale, deputy administrator of the Transportation Security Administration:

"Amateur testing like this does not in any way assist us or show us where we have flaws in our system."

Oh, really?

Let me tell you what it suggests to me and, I would argue, any intelligent person whose butt is not in a sling because of what Mr. Heatwole did: If an amateur, a college kid apparently working alone, is able to compromise security so thoroughly, how much more could a professional do? It's a terrifying thought, which may be why Mr. McHale would prefer we not think it, not infer too much from Mr. Heatwole's success.

At this point, a review might be valuable:

Sept. 11, 2001: Nineteen hijackers, believed to be armed with box cutters, seize and crash four passenger jets, resulting in countless injuries and catastrophic loss of life.

Nov. 19, 2001: President Bush signs a measure handing responsibility for the nation's air security over to the newly created Transportation Security Administration. "The law I will sign should give all Americans greater confidence when they fly," he says.

Jan. 23, 2002: A man carrying a hunting knife somehow boards a plane in Greensboro, N.C., and flies to Columbus, Ohio.

March 25, 2002: The Transportation Department reports that in a test, security screeners missed 60 percent of simulated explosives, 70 percent of knives and 30 percent of guns.

March 31, 2002: A man carrying steak knives gets through security in New Orleans.

May 6, 2002: A man brings two loaded semiautomatic pistols through a security checkpoint, again in the appropriately nicknamed "Big Easy."

Labor Day Weekend, 2002: A team of journalists takes 14 flights through 11 airports, carrying box cutters, razors and pepper spray. They get through security every time.

There's more, but you get the point.

And now, this.

Call me crazy - not that you need permission - but there's a pattern here, and it's not one that leaves you impressed with the seriousness and efficiency of the people responsible for our safety. We have been given the appearance of increased security, but not necessarily the reality.

With consumer confidence in a multibillion-dollar industry at stake, one gets the sense that more effort has been put into keeping us pacified than protected.

Congress will be looking into all of this, and I can only hope this will be one of the rare times a congressional inquiry actually leads to something. Because what you have in this latest security breach as well as in all the others is a giant red caution flag we ignore at our own peril.

If our system cannot defeat amateur testing, God help us when the professionals come.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald and appears Sundays in The Sun.

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