Saturday, August 16, 2003

Catch of the day

Holes in homeland security

Three guys went fishing last weekend and got lost. Their boat grounded on an unfamiliar shore and they got out to look around.

They wandered about the strange landscape for a while before they found somebody who could give them directions - guards at Kennedy International Airport in New York. The lost fisherman had been strolling around the runways undetected until they announced themselves.

So much for homeland security.

On Wednesday, a reporter and photographer from the New York Times and their hired boat captain were arrested by the Coast Guard and Port Authority cops for doing essentially the same thing. The only difference was the journalists weren't lost, they were simply noting how easy it would be to sneak on to restricted airport property.

This time the authorities were determined to crack down on the security breach. They swooped in on the motorboat, which the Timesmen said was at a dead stop in Jamaica Bay off runway 4R, and arrested the three occupants - who complained there were no signs posted to warn boaters to stay away from the airport. Acknowledging that the journalists weren't terrorists, officers took reporter Corey Kilgannon to Manhattan Criminal Court on an unrelated warrant involving a charge of bicycling on the sidewalk from last December.

All of this would be amusing - an example of Keystone Kops efficiency - if it weren't for another little item in the news this week. An FBI sting busted a man trying to sell shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles to an undercover agent posing as a terrorist. These are the kind of missiles that can be used to bring down a commercial airliner if you are, say, lying in the weeds near the end of a runway or posing as a fisherman casting for spot in Jamaica Bay.

This type of missile can be bought on the black market for a few thousand dollars and there are thousands of them out there, leftovers from various conflicts and Cold War strategies. They can knock a jet out of the sky at 12,000 feet. Last November somebody shot a missile like that at an airliner filled with Israeli tourists as it was taking off from Mombassa, Kenya. Fortunately for the tourists, it missed.

It would cost about $10 billion to outfit all 6,800 U.S. passenger planes with anti-missile protection systems designed to keep such attacks from succeeding. That proposal is in a bill introduced to Congress by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y. The measure also calls for beefing up Coast Guard and National Guard patrols around airport perimeters. On Wednesday, Boxer fired off a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, asking for his support. She noted that shoulder-fired missiles have been targeted against U.S. military aircraft by terrorists in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

"If we fail to heed this third warning, we will have only ourselves to blame. We will be culpable for not moving fast enough to protect the American people from this threat," she told Ridge.

But the bill doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Congress seems more inclined to "study" airline protection systems than to do much that will actually protect airliners - or their passengers.

That seems to be the way of Congress. We know, for instance, that scanning every single suitcase that gets put on any airplane would be one way to keep bombs from being smuggled on board. That was supposed to happen at all airports by last December, but the deadline was pushed back because some places couldn't meet it. (Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport reportedly does screen all luggage).

Meanwhile, random searches of passengers run the risk of letting a real terrorist slip through while security guards ask some white-haired granny to take off her shoes. Instead of putting anti-missile devices on airliners, we forget to post no-trespassing signs around runways and hope those guys in the rowboat are really just drinking beer and baiting hooks.


David Wells is editor of the Enquirer editorial page. Contact him at (513) 768-8310; fax: (513) 768-8610; e-mail: dwells@enquirer.com

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