This story was co-published with the Newark Star-Ledger and also appeared in that newspaper's Dec. 21, 2008 issue.
Twenty years ago this Sunday, plastic explosives hidden in a radio cassette player in a Samsonite suitcase ripped a hole in Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. Until 9/11, it was deadliest act of terrorism involving Americans.
The Lockerbie bombing was one of a number of disasters in which the world said "never again." But after three special commissions on aviation security, the 9/11 attacks, the shoe bomber and thwartedsports-drink bomb plot in the United Kingdom, could something as seemingly archaic as a suitcase bomb still destroy an airplane?
According to investigators, the bag was planted by two Libyan intelligence operatives, one of whom was also an airline worker at a small airport in Malta, an island the size of Philadelphia between Tunisia and the toe of Italyâs boot. The bag passed through airports in Frankfurt and London with little scrutiny even though the passenger who checked it never boarded the flights.
Things have changed. Airlines are now required to match all bags with passengers. Luggage is screened for explosives using high-tech machines that work like CAT scans. And the number of closed-circuit television cameras in the restricted areas of airports has multiplied to prevent inside jobs.
But a review of recent security breaches, congressional testimony and government audits released in the past two years shows there are still serious gaps that terrorists could exploit.
A Canadian report released last week found that nearly 60 criminal gangs were operating in the countryâs airports. In the United States, a Homeland Security report out before Thanksgiving detailed how an airline employee sneaked 13 handguns and an assault rifle onto an airplane. Across the world, mechanics, baggage handlers and food caterers with access to airplanes arenât subject to screening as passengers are.
Checked baggage machines, while state-of-the-art, arenât foolproof. Security experts say even if they were, cargo holds remain vulnerable because a substantial percentage of the packages and crates that travel on passenger planes, especially from overseas, arenât screened for explosives. And despite two decades of tests, airplanes havenât been made hard enough to withstand a bomb blast.
"If someone is really determined, I feel that they could probably do that again," said Glenn Johnson, chairman of the Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 whose 21-year-old daughter, Beth, was killed.
Security experts say that while enough holes exist for a bombing similar to Lockerbie, it would be much more difficult to carry one out today.
"A realistic assessment is itâs less likely but still possible," said Buck Revell, the FBIâs executive assistant director over investigations when Lockerbie occurred. "It could [happen], but not in the same way," said Mary Schiavo, inspector general for the Department of Transportation after the bombing.
"In the real security world, anyone who tells you something canât happen is probably overpromising," said Christopher White, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration. "We have gone to extraordinary lengths to heighten security since TSA was created after 9/11. We have the strongest aviation security system in the history of our country today. But that doesnât mean weâre done."
The Threat of an Inside Job
Reports of airport workers abusing their ID badges surface unrelentingly.
The two-year investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police identified 298 airport employees who were working with organized crime to smuggle drugs through major airports, including Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
"Organized crime groups will attempt to exploit airports by corrupting existing employees or by placing criminal associates into the airport workforce," according to a declassified summary. "The same methods used by organized crime could potentially be used to assist a terrorist organization."
The U.S. has had its share of security breaches. In November, a Detroit airplane cleaner used his badge to bring his girlfriend on a plane after-hours in an attempt to impress her. In September, three Seattle airport contractors used their badges to get on a flight without being screened. In August, a Los Angeles airport elevator mechanic used his access privileges to smuggle 15 illegal immigrants past customs.
A Department of Homeland Security inspector general report released in November documented how a Comair employee smuggled a duffel bag full of guns through an employee-only door and onto a plane in January 2007. He wasnât caught until the Delta flight from Orlando landed in Puerto Rico.
That report came on the heels of another inspector general report in October saying that the TSA had failed to keep track of thousands of ID cards, badges and uniforms of screeners whoâd left the agency.
To get an ID to bypass security, airport employees must pass a criminal background check and have their names run against the governmentâs list of known or suspected terrorists. They are also subject to random screening at temporary checkpoints set up at employee entrances.
Bills that would mandate 100 percent employee screening have stalled in Congress and the Senate. TSA officials say such a proposal would necessitate a parallel workforce on duty 24 hours a day. An industry analysis of the House bill said mandatory screening could cost between $3 billion and $6.5 billion a year. By comparison, the TSAâs annual budget is about $7 billion.
Even with that, vulnerabilities would still exist, the inspector generalâs office said in its November report.
"Several TSA officials said that two relatively easy ways to introduce contraband into the secure area would be for someone to throw a bag over a perimeter fence or pass a piece of luggage through a baggage claim to an awaiting accomplice," the report said.
Baggage Screening Has Improved
At the time of Lockerbie, many checked suitcases were loaded onto planes unscreened. The x-ray machines available were weak and provided images that were often fuzzy.
After 9/11, hundreds of new machines were installed at U.S. airports and at overseas airports with direct flights to the U.S. Explosives detection systems, the minivan-size machines passengers might see in terminals, alarm automatically if they sense a suspicious shape or density and allow screeners sliced-up views inside a bag. Explosives trace detectors, which involve swabbing the bag, analyze particles for chemical composition.
"We are very confident in the technologies that weâve put out today to find explosives," said White, the TSA spokesman.
The results of covert tests are classified. But Rep. James Oberstar, D-MN, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said in an interview thatthe technology "has a ways to go."
Still, Oberstar, who served on the presidential commission investigating Lockerbie, said enforcing the passenger-bag match may be enough to stop a repeat of Pan Am 103.
"This was an Achilles heel for aviation security," he said. "Had just that one element been in place in the Frankfurt Airport, had Germany authorities been required to match all bags with the passengers, that tragedy never would have occurred."
Cargo Screening Is Lax
Checked bags might not be the only threat though, as about 15 million pounds of cargo – the equivalent of several hundred thousand suitcases – is shipped on passenger planes each day in the U.S. Nearly half of that cargo isnât screened for explosives. On overseas flights to the U.S., such as the route of Pan Am 103, only a fraction of the cargo is screened.
"The airlines and other transportation interests have very openly, vocally and forcefully argued that they should not have to do 100 percent cargo screening, including the cargo that goes on passenger planes, and they have very strongly lobbied against that," said Schiavo, the former inspector general, now representing families of 9/11 victims.
Industry representatives say screening every package would grind the wheels of commerce, slowing critical shipments like organ transplants and putting an end to businessesâ reliance on overnight delivery.
To compensate, the TSA limits passenger cargo to what it calls "known shippers," factories and businesses with a record of frequent shipping.
Under the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007, the TSA is required to screen 50 percent of cargo on passenger planes by February and 100 percent by August 2010. In October, the TSA announced that it had met the 50 percent deadline early by focusing on smaller airports and on regional jets which make up more than 90 percent of passenger planes.
Getting to 100 percent is more complicated. Because regional jets have narrow bodies, they mostly carry piece cargo as opposed to the giant pallets of bulk containers hauled by planes with two aisles in the cabin. Those containers have to be broken down, screened and reassembled.
Because of the time that takes and the lack of space at airports, TSA has started a program to shift the screening up the supply chain to the warehouses of private shippers and freight forwarders, who consolidate individual boxes into larger pallets.
At a hearing in July, several members of Congress questioned whether it was smart to rely on private security, given the failure of private screeners before 9/11. A GAO report in late 2005 noted that of the freight forwarders whose facilities the TSA had inspected, 40 percent had security deficiencies.
The hearing also featured a dust-up over whether the 100-percent deadline applied to flights coming into the U.S. TSA assistant administrator John Sammon said it didnât.
"Wouldnât we think there might be as high, or perhaps in my opinion, a higher threat with cargo that originates overseas?" asked Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
"I wouldnât disagree with you," Sammon said. "But we need to have the program working here first. Itâs kind of hard to suggest they should do something that we donât have up and running yet."
While attention is focused on detecting a bomb before it gets onto a plane, one of the key recommendations from the Lockerbie investigation was to study ways to improve a planeâs ability to withstand an explosion.
The Federal Aviation Administration and now the TSA have conducted tests into what it takes to blow up a plane, and hardened luggage containers are in the process of being certified. But the cost and added weight have made airlines reluctant to buy them, and the TSA hasnât received funding from Congress.
"Always in the past and even up until today, blast protection or blast hardening of aircraft has always been a no-no. No one ever even wanted to talk about it," said Raul Radovitzky, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology aeronautics professor. "Aircraft are extremely flimsy structures â itâs thin layers of aluminum."
Radovitzky said he was confident, however, that the problem will be solved one day as the amount of explosives machines can detect becomes smaller and the weight of the containers becomes lighter.
A year ago, at the 19th anniversary of Lockerbie at Arlington National Cemetery, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stood in front of the memorial made of 270 blocks of red Scottish sandstone â each one representing a victim â and vowed to not let the lessons be forgotten.
"I wish I could say that the atrocity that was represented by this attack on Pan Am 103 revolutionized our thinking and that in the wake of that attack 19 years ago, there was a comprehensive response to the perpetrators of terror," he told the victimsâ families. "But the facts prevent me from doing so."
Chertoff said the job isnât done and that the country is only at the end of the beginning. This year, the victimsâ families will gather again in front of the memorial. They will recite the names of those who died.
"We canât just stop with what weâre doing right now," said Johnson, whose daughter was headed home to Greensburg, Pa., for Christmas when Pan Am 103 went down. "Weâre acting as the conscience."