July 16, 2004
Terror Tale

Instapundit linked up this harrowing account of what certainly seemed like a "dry run" by a new bunch of terrorists on an airline. While the account is quite frightening, I also found reasons to be optimistic:

  • "Several air marshalls" seem to have been present. To me, this strongly implies we are in fact profiling, we're just doing it a lot more subtly than dragging people off and searching them. I just can't see "several" marshalls being assigned to a garden-variety domestic trip unless some computer somewhere threw a red flag noting a lot of arab nationals were awfully interested in flying from Detroit to LA together.
  • Law enforcement was most definitely waiting at the other end of the trip. If that group had just sat there reading magazines, I doubt anyone out of the ordinary would have been waiting at the gate.
  • The flight crew and pilots were aware at all times about what was going on. Aviation Week has noted several times that pilots are asking for and receiving training in how to fly an airplane in a way that "disables unsecured persons" (via bouncing them off the ceiling like pingpong balls). Aviation Week reports that testing has revealed a simple .5g pushover was all that was needed to do the trick, easily within the realm of what commercial airliners are capable of.
  • Most importantly, most if not all of the rest of the passengers were quite aware of what was going on, or at least what appeared to be going on. Three years ago, a hijacking meant a free trip to Cuba. Now, it means a wrestling match between a dozen arabs and a hundred-plus Americans scared out of their wits. Beat-downs, as they say, will ensue, perhaps before the air marshalls can even start moving.

Bottom line: we're all inconceivably more aware of suspicious people moving around on airplanes, and as scary as it is the system does seem to have worked this time. For comparison, James Woods noticed and reported suspicious activity on a flight he was on prior to 9-11, and that report was simply filed away. It may not have been as public or reassuring as the reporter would've liked, but the wheels did seem to be turning here.

Posted by scott at July 16, 2004 10:37 AM

eMail this entry!

That final protection, an armed pilot, is still being impeded by someone at the top - Mineta perhaps.

Posted by: Walter E. Wallis on July 16, 2004 11:34 AM

how does this help me if they build a bomb in the bathroom and set it off, drop it down the toilet, whatever?

how does the air marshal help me in this case? what did the USG gain information wise by letting these people go ANOTHER 2 and a 1/2 hours into the trip than if they'd let it go on for an hour?

Posted by: foo on July 16, 2004 11:35 AM

Some good points, althoug I'm not sure about some of them. While I agree that it's a good sign there were mutiple marshalls on board, indicating they had "profiled" the flight and noticed 14 Syrians, if those guys were assembling a bomb in the bathroom, the marshalls sure didn't seem to be doing much about it. The terrorists clearly know that hijackings won't work anymore, because as noted, once a middle eastern man stands up and says "everyone remain calm" he will get immediately jumped by a large group of passengers. But if the goal is to build a bomb that blows up the plane in the air, then when the man stands up it's going to be to scream "Allahu Akbar!" before everything explodes. "Noticing suspicious behavior" doesn't do you much good then.

Posted by: HoustonF on July 16, 2004 11:38 AM

This is better news than is highlighted here. I think this poses a question that has not been asked and this is:

"is this the best they got?"

Now I do not relish having airplanes falling from the sky (I travel by air every week, have been for years) but it sure beats a chemical/biological/nuclear attack any day...

Posted by: Gern on July 16, 2004 11:40 AM

Why on earth are we still refusing to do basic interviewing of passengers prior to allowing them to board a flight? The Israelis use trained pros to ask each passenger a few simple q's-- Where are you going, what for, how long will you be there, etc-- and scrutinize the answers to ID liars.

In the case of the Northwest Airlines flight from Detroit to LA cited above, it would have been easy to prevent the 14 Syrians from boarding in the first place, had the following Q&A session taken place first:

Q: Why are you going to LA?
A: We're going to Las Vegas, actually?
Q: For pleasure or business? For how long?
A: We're musicians. We're playing at a concert in the desert.
Q: What instrument do you play? What kind of concert is this?
A: um, er, I play the clarinet.
Q: May I see your clarinet?
A: um, er, it's waiting for me in Las Vegas....

[agent signals to FBI officials to take passenger out for further questioning]

This is simple, though not cheap (it would require maybe 20,000 trained, college-educated questioners at maybe $100k FTE cost, or maybe $2B per year). Why aren't we doing this?

Posted by: thibaud on July 16, 2004 11:43 AM

You ain't no foo. That is the nightmare scenario for a frequent traveler such as myself. We passengers will never let the bad guys easily commandeer a plane again. But, that doesn't help us if they just blow it out of the sky.

I must admit, I was disappointed in the way the passengers on this flight still appeared to be sheep waiting for someone else to do something. I would have stood up and said, "Oh, no, get back to your seat until your friend is done and don't you be taking funny packages in there either." If it creates a ruckus that forces the plane to land, fine. If I'm wrong and they're perfectly innocent, fine. Better that than dead.

Posted by: Reid on July 16, 2004 11:47 AM

Folks, enough with the heroics already. The smart thing to do is to prevent these people from getting on the plane in the first place.

Pre-flight questioning of all passengers works for the Israelis, who have not suffered a hijacking, to my knowledge, in thirty years. It does not require racial profiling. It does not violate any constitutional rights I can think of.

It can work for us and should be adopted ASAP.

Posted by: thibaud on July 16, 2004 11:49 AM

Some of the comments here are rather far fetched. "What if they build a bomb?"

1. It doesn't take 14 Syrians to build a bomb. The thought of 14 of them all trying to fit into an airline bathroom is highly amusing.

2. I'm pretty sure that they screen for potentially dangerous chemicals, though I have no idea how effective such screening is.

3. While awful for any passengers, 9/11 has taught us that the major danger of a hijacking is the potential of a kamikazi mission. Just blowing up the plane doesn't have nearly the same effect of ramming major buildings like the Pentagon, the White House, etc.

4. If all they want to do is build and explode a bomb, it would be far simpler (and also likely much more deadly) to just construct a "van bomb" like they used in the first attack on the WTC and park it in the middle of a large concentration of people, or under or next to an older (and/or less structurally sound) building.

Posted by: J Thomason on July 16, 2004 11:59 AM

Precisely right, thibaud.

If anybody knows anything that handling security issues, there are Israelis. Why don’t we implement safety measures that they found effective?

Training that you propose would surely be cheaper than fallout from another attack (imagine where airline industry would end up then?).

Instead, we have calls for national Ids. Indulging Larry Ellison's dreams about selling citizen-monitoring software to the government – think about updates and security patches!- might pull Oracle out from a toilet. With a minor drawback that it would not make US any safer than before.

Incidentally, we have some numbers of screening agents that you refer to, but, as far I could ascertain, they are (or were, don’t know about now) employed in detecting drug trafficking.

Posted by: Katherine on July 16, 2004 12:04 PM

Re: "don't do no good if they're building a bomb"... true, as far as it goes. However, it should be noted that while it's comparatively easy to smuggle various bomb bits on board one passenger at a time, explosives are still explosives, and we've been looking hard for those since Lockerbie.

If I'm in an optimistic mood, I'd say this was a honeypot... the "powers that be" knew something was up, and also knew this unusual grouping didn't have any explosives (otherwise they'd've been detected). Let's see what they're up to...

If I'm in a pessimistic mood, I'd say this was a bunch of guys doing the best they could under the hog-tied politically correct strictures they've been placed under, hoping that the pilots could disable the bombers before they could pull the trigger.

It's also just possible these guys were out to jigger with Infidel Yankees to see what they'd do.

I guess the main point, though, is that the system was working in ways the reporter either didn't notice or chose not to point out. Not perfectly, and certainly with room for improvement, but certainly far beyond a "failure".

Posted by: scott on July 16, 2004 12:10 PM

J Thomason, people comment on building a bomb because original article suggested that this might have been the intent. Also, it is mentioned nowhere that they all tried to fit the lavatory AT THE SAME TIME.

Pls do read the article.

Posted by: Katherine on July 16, 2004 12:13 PM

I'm sorry but, I do not share your optimism. These men could have been assembling a bomb in the bathroom.
A locked cockpit door, armed marshals, judo training, painfully aware passengers, the FBI waiting on the ground at the destination - are all rendered meaningless is the aircraft if bombed from within.

Posted by: e-ho on July 16, 2004 12:19 PM

I'm with Scott - I think it is an example of the system working.

I mean, they didn't blow the plane out of the sky, did they?

Posted by: blaster on July 16, 2004 12:20 PM

The aircrat didn't blow up because it was a dry-run. It was clearly a test-practice session. If you ask me - it was a success on the end of the terrorists. They figured they could pull it off without much flap. and they did. No one said anything or did anything or asked the men to sit down. No one.

I think these 14 men figured it was easy as anything to get on a aircraft with PC rules, a fake leg, some "components" stashed away in carry-on, and a few more chemicals in a McDonalds bag.

Hide the different componets for bomb-making in a bin in the bathroom - and viola! boom.

This time no boom. but next time?


Wake up people. Our system is pathetic.
Only 2 Arab Mulims can be questioned per flight? That's suicide - plain and simple.

Posted by: e-ho on July 16, 2004 12:29 PM

J. Thomason, Van bomb doesn't cause as much economic damage as planes going boom.

Who will want to fly?

They need to cripple us economically first.

Posted by: Sandy P on July 16, 2004 12:30 PM

JT -

1 - it would if there were multiple components that had been determined to be innocuous on their own and easily smuggled through baggage check.

2 - nothing is 100% effective. Take enough shots, one is bound to get through. A good reason for having lots of people might be to ensure that one of them got through with each critical component. Suppose there are 3 critical components for a bomb and the likelihood of any one of them getting detected is 30%. How many people do you need to ensure a 99% probability of success? My back-of-the-envelope (admittedly hasty) calculation is 15.

3 - blowing up an airliner would have at least a short term devastating effect on business and commerce, possibly sparking an economic slowdown and, helping get GW voted out of the White House so that Kerry can retreat from the WOT (as he surely would). You need to consider secondary and tertiary effects. The terrorists do.

4 - They may be working on that, too. But, it would not likely have the same economic effect. Knocking an airplane out of the sky would have a significant psychological impact.

In general, I think you are thinking through things assuming that A) the terrorists see the risks and rewards exactly as you do and B) that they do not make mistakes or behave irrationally. You might determine for yourself that bombing an airplane is not the right way to go but, that it does not follow that that is what they will also conclude.

Posted by: Reid on July 16, 2004 12:32 PM

What good news? If this is a true story, then it sure seems to me that NOBODY DID ANYTHING ABOUT THIS. If these guys were trying to build a bomb mid-air, it appears their failure had everything to do with themselves, and absolutely nothing to do with any air marshall, flight crew, or passengers. One reason I find this story so incredible is that, if it really happened this way in real life, I think passengers would have gotten out of their seats and done something. These guys were clearly up to no good (based on her account), a normal person would ask themself: "do I want to get out of my seat and stop these guys and risk arrest, and possibly being branded a racist if I'm wrong, or do I want to sit here, and risk dying a firey death." Pretty simple choice for most. Somebody would have done SOMETHING.

Posted by: Sparky on July 16, 2004 12:35 PM

Definitely an interesting account and one that'd bother me if I happened to be on the plane at the time. I personally don't fly that often, but I do fly out of airports here in DC enough to be bothered by these accounts. As to what can be done, I'm not sure. I don't think the Israeli process would work as well as one might think. Basically, that's just due to the logistics of the situation. Right now, it takes enough time to get to the airport, get a parking place, get to terminal, counter, through security, and then on the flight and to your destination. For people vacationing, adding extra time for questioning people isn't that big of a deal. For business travelers, it can be crippling. If you add an extra hour for this process (easily feasible during peak times. Ex.: Even though the actual security check only takes 1-2 minutes, you're in line for an hour for it to happen), then they'll have to get there earlier. These means less time for the actual profit-generating part of the trip - the meetings. Also, it could necessitate more overnights for the travellers. All of this drives up corporate overhead, which means our prices go up. On top of that, our fees to fly (taxes and other fees) will also go up to pay for the initiative.

Now, that does need to be balanced against the recovery cost for an attack and a happy medium needs to be struck. Personally, I'm all in favor of using technology to do the work for us. Technology can be fooled, but not as easily as people. Imagine this scenario: We implement the Israeli system and now have to hire 20K people (per your estimate). Where do we get them? Are you going to get bright young college students to apply for a boring as hell job with no real opportunity for advancement? Nope - you're going to get a mix of immigrants (look at current security folks) and the like. Which means you can get 'moles' - people who will act like upstanding citizens, pass all background checks, and still let terrorists through (this is conceivable - I believe the 9/11 terrorists had inside folks place some of their equipment for them). Which means we're spending $2B on a system that doesn't work. Bad juju, that.

Then, on top of that, we do have to respect the rights of others - even if they don't look like us, follow our religion, etc. Just because someone is Middle Eastern and on a plane (or even a group of Middle Eastern folks) are on a plane doesn't mean that there is anything up (the common sense approach that many people favor is what police used to use when pulling over black folks in new cars - remember the late 80's? It's not a good thing). What the author doesn't tell us is did the air marshalls also use the same restrooms and search them? If so, the problem might have been averted that way.

Now, I also don't agree with the thought that the terrorists won't blow up a plane and that they'd rather fly it into something. Blowing up a plane has a significant impact on our economy. If that were to happen, every single plane will be grounded. Public uproar will be huge. Democrats will blame Republicans and vice-versa. Much money will be lost.

On the overall, seeing that there were people on the plane monitoring the issue and that there were people on the other end waiting to question the men makes me believe there is a system in place and it's working - to some extent. As for no real coverage of these sorts of events - I'm also fine with that. Why let the terrorists know that we can catch them doing this? If they try and fail, we'll catch more of them and the other terrorists won't know how or why. Sooner or later, that'll make them stop that tactic (they'll just try another, but that's the nature of the game...

Posted by: Ron on July 16, 2004 12:43 PM

Who knows what the strategy actually is, but if I was a terrorist I would a) try to top my previous efforts so that the next attack should be bigger (i.e more spectacular)than 9/11 and b) using the same mode of attack--airlines--is by its very sameness less spectacular.

The obvious question from this story is whether the "we're musicians" answer checked out. It shouldn't be hard to verify that alibi. Where did they play? Who booked them? What's the band's history? Bueller? Bueller?

Posted by: doug b on July 16, 2004 12:44 PM

Foo has it right. We need to adjust to this threat. The air marshals wouldnt/didnt stop this particular danger of assembling a bomb. What was required was the passengers being forbidden from congragating out of their seats under any circumstances. Air marshals cant direct passenger traffic without revealing themselves, and flight attendants arent well suited to do it (although they actually do one hell of a job, ive heard many stories of FAs taking matters into their own hands on 911 and other possible threats). Still, maybe it is better to have a line of defense other than a hundred pound woman. Perhaps 'bouncer' type flight attendants could be employed. Personally i'd feel a bit better with a burly dude with a little law enforcement/martial arts training on every flight, if only as another hand on deck. A major problem with the passengers rising up scenario is that the passengers are sitting down, often tucked into window seats and are easilly funnelled/cut off. A single terrorist could cut off most of the passengers from the cockpit or tail and fight them one at a time. A good sized/trained crew member in the front of the plane would change this dynamic and could provide precious seconds that ordinary FAs just cant be expected to. I'll add a few bucks to my ticket for that kind of edge.

Posted by: Mark Buehner on July 16, 2004 01:06 PM

Some points:

1) Maybe they weren't building a bomb, but they certaainly did find and exploit some holes, didn't they? And maybe they were building something else- something that could intefere with the planes systems? (how far-fetched is that? They do ask you to switch off cell phones and electronics gear after all)

2) It is discouraging that someone didn't stand up and call these guys out. As noted above, if it's a choice between being wrong and branded a racist and being dead, no contest.

3) Terrorists have plotted to blow up planes before. Ramzi Yousef was part of the plot to blow up multiple jetliners over the Pacific. So there is precedent.

4) Arab/middle eastern men are going to be scrutinized closely by the rest of their fellow travelersm fairly or not. They need to learn to live with it, because we have to do the job that our security forces refuse to do

Posted by: shark on July 16, 2004 01:15 PM

It's possible that this event was _known_ to be a dry-run (with some reasonably high level of confidence), and so the idea might have been to observe patterns for future reference. As already noted, a seemingly inordinately high number of marshalls were on board (who I can't imagine would sit idly by while a real bomb was constructed, orders or no orders; they're not Islamists, after all), and other Feds were waiting in the wings.

I think this might have been a coup. 14 terrorists apprehended during a single flight, conducting a dry run that would help define future plans? Certainly, it may have been a bit risky, but maybe chemical sensors are more advanced than we common folk are aware?

Of course, the possibility remains that _they_ were playing _us_. Maybe their intent is to feed us with bad intelligence, to deflect attention from the _real_ attack. Are they that good, though? Unfortunately, it remains to be seen...

Posted by: Mark on July 16, 2004 01:19 PM

I have to say it looked like a dry run, which is bad, but it looks like the Feds knew something was up, which is good. The fact that they were 'playing the line' with civilians around makes me cringe, though. It sounds like the bad guys have gone active. Remember recon/probing is the first step in an attack, and from what I've been able to find out, these guys are very deliberate in their preparations.

However, re: comments about bomb making, the explosive itself isn't generally metallic, so if you can keep it on your person, you can probably get that past security through the magnetometer. (They CAN ID some explosives if it goes through x-ray inspection.) Other parts 'can' be pretty innocuous looking when separated.

RE: screening for chemicals, it's not that easy (or accurate) to sniff the air and pick up 'bomb' molecules. Lot's of chemicals look like explosives to these machines, and the inspections are pretty intrusive (i.e., Ahkmed would see what's holding up the line and divert.) I've been carted out of line to get 'sniffed' a few times, but only after getting off an airplane (apparently after a long business trip I look like a drug smuggler to customs.) They've told me things like deodorant (and other common items) sometimes trigger a positive reading. I know a little about chemistry, and the things they named that cause false positives are more similar to typical explosives than coke or heroin.

Posted by: Jim M on July 16, 2004 01:23 PM

So after the plane landed what became of the 15 Syrians? I assume they were detained and questioned. Were they able to explain their actions or are they still in custody? I would suspect that if this was really a dry run for a bombing of an in-air flight (e.g., if the limping guy's shoe was fake, etc.) these guys are still in custody. Anyone know?

Posted by: DJC on July 16, 2004 01:26 PM

People. It was a dry run. A test.

here's some pretend logic:
"there are air marshals on board" ...
"thank goddness."
"so if we blow up - at least the air marshals will blow up with us."

Posted by: e-ho on July 16, 2004 01:31 PM

Reid, you've made in your second point.

You don't put a lot of terrorists on a plane, each smuggling various parts, because you know some will get through and some won't. The instant *anyone* is caught with a bomb part, the flight won't leave the gate. Giving 15 terrorists one of three different bomb parts is, well, stupid.

Under your scenario, baggage screeners would find a couple detonators and some explosives, take them from the passengers carrying them, and send the flight on its way. You don't actually think that would happen, do you?

Posted by: Reid on July 16, 2004 01:33 PM

Reid, you've made in your second point.

You don't put a lot of terrorists on a plane, each smuggling various parts, because you know some will get through and some won't. The instant *anyone* is caught with a bomb part, the flight won't leave the gate. Giving 15 terrorists one of three different bomb parts is, well, stupid.

Under your scenario, baggage screeners would find a couple detonators and some explosives, take them from the passengers carrying them, and send the flight on its way. You don't actually think that would happen, do you?

Posted by: AK on July 16, 2004 01:34 PM

Wow, if I were a terrorist, all I'd do is recruit non-middle eastern people. No one seems too suspicious of them.

Racial profiling isn't bad for moral reasons, its bad becuase it makes the armor uneven.

Let's go with rigorious interogation by professionals. They can cut the money out of some stupid subsidy or something.

Also let's eliminate the carry on luggage. We could have a special service for people who need medical supplies, but forget about the carry on and such. Perhaps we could allow carry on so long as you cant take it out of the bins during flight.

Provide some books or something, but no Mcdonalds bags or anything. And have a steward inspect (and clean) the lavatory between EACH use. Not only would that keep jackasses from making too much of a mess, but it would eliminate a hidden assembly point.

I suppose we cant be perfectly safe ever, but racial profiling would only make things a lot worse. There are plenty of pretty teenage girls with blonde hair who hate the United States.

Posted by: Dustin on July 16, 2004 01:37 PM

Reid, I know this is common knowledge, but several harmless materials by themselves become lethal when combines.

Perhaps each individual part is not going to raise any flags.

That is the entire idea.

ITs not like one guy had a detonator, and the other guy had the C4 brick.

One guy had a camera, one guy had a burger or something...

maybe 14 total parts even. Maybe only one assembler (from the red book)? and a bnuch of mules.

c'mon now, that's really simple stuff.

Posted by: Dustin on July 16, 2004 01:40 PM

"A Pack, Not A Herd"

Some others have asserted that those around these "musicians" should have done something. I agree. In putting myself in the passenger's situation I have asked myself, "What would I do"? The mindset that keeps coming back to me is "a pack, not a herd". Giving it more thought, I wondered would I even want to get on a plane that had 14 Arabs on it knowing that at most only two could have been talked to by authorities? I have heard of that rule previously and so I am sure potential terrorists have knowledge of it too. I think the Israeli’s are smart in the way they handle their security, they emphasis looking for the people, not the bomb. So the solution I have come up with is as follows:

I am going to conduct my own screening. I wouldn’t be rude, I am going to ask questions like a five year old (maybe it will be kind of rude, come to think of it). I’m going to ask, where are you from, where are you going, what you doing—all followed up with why, why, how come? All this can be done while we are waiting to board. If they get mad, so what? If they act suspicious, I would report it. I am not going to be hostile, or accusatory. I am going to ask, “Are y’all all together”? We’ll probably be waiting at least 45 minutes, I can come up with lots of questions.

Anybody else have any suggestions?

Posted by: ed on July 16, 2004 01:42 PM

Cut in line for the bathroom and check it out.
Be prepared to help the FA before things get completely out of control.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey on July 16, 2004 01:55 PM

I think the red book was a prayer book

Posted by: Matt S. on July 16, 2004 01:56 PM

Racial profiling isn't bad for moral reasons, its bad becuase it makes the armor uneven.

With limited resources, you WANT uneven armor, with the thickest part facing the worst threat. That's why warships have the heaviest armor on their sides. Having perfectly even armor is a good recipe for having insufficient armor where you need it (examining high-risk passengers like groups of Arab males with one-way tickets), and too much where you don't (groping grannies looking for nail files).

Posted by: R C Dean on July 16, 2004 01:56 PM

1'd l1e to now 1f the feds had the bad atually play?

Posted by: Ayatrollah on July 16, 2004 02:18 PM

I think that last post was "I'd like to know if the feds actually had the band play"

Posted by: Ron on July 16, 2004 02:23 PM

Well, it sure sounds suspicious and it sure sounds like a dry run. And we need to screen everybody and profile certain types for closer scrutiny and then do additional random checks. It is time to stop blathering about inconvenience and PC concerns.

That said, I would like to note for the audience that there doesn't seem to be any hard and fast evidence that these guys were up to anything and were anything other than musicians. It doesn't seem likely under current conditions, but I've traveled on airplanes as one of a larger group scattered around the cabin, some even in first class. And I've been on planes where there were obvious groups scattered around the plane. Smiles, knowing glances, thumbs up, little groups near the lavatories, a pleasant smile before the flight and a chilling stare (the guy could have been terrified of flying and never even noticed somebody trying to get his attention)... none of this would likely have drawn the least bit of suspicion if the men weren't obvously arab. And it is entirely possible that they noticed, and resented, the attention they were getting (could that explain the the icy stare - bleep you, Lady, you think I'm a terrorist just because I'm middle eastern!) and decided to yank some chains and turn some cranks.

There were a bunch of men who, through PROFILING, were noticed for suspicious behavior and were watched by air marshalls and confronted upon landing.

Posted by: Knucklehead on July 16, 2004 02:25 PM

re: a pack not a herd"
the woman did try to chat with the passanger who let her son in front of him. and he responded cold and chilling. . .

Posted by: anne on July 16, 2004 02:26 PM

Where are the Todd Beamers? To me it would have been "inconceivable" that so many passengers would watch all this without taking action (other than telling a stewardess and attempting a smile). How about standing in the aisle and saying "HEY! NICE FLUTE! CAN I SEE IT?" Or when the 7 all stood up at the time upon final decent "SIT THE @$&% DOWN PLEASE!" Either one of these comments could have triggered, or itself constituted, the "event" the Marshall's needed to act. Instead, the 40 suits risked non-arrival of that flight, to put it mildly.

Posted by: IDOlog on July 16, 2004 02:32 PM

"We implement the Israeli system and now have to hire 20K people (per your estimate). Where do we get them? Are you going to get bright young college students to apply for a boring as hell job with no real opportunity for advancement?"

Of course there's room for advancement. The most talented of these people would be on a track to move into the FBI. As to boredom, this isn't boring work at all for someone who's keen on psychological analysis, which would certainly include every Psychology BA and social worker.

And the salary would be very competitive. My fully-loaded cost estimate of $100k would imply an annual salary of maybe $50-$60k in most areas, perhaps another $10-15k for people at airport hubs in the Northeast, Chicago and LA and SF. That's certainly better than to be expected for your average 25-30 year old Psych and SW grad.

The key point is that, as with intelligence, this nation needs to get over its SELF-DEFEATING OBSESSION WITH TECHNOLOGY and start focusing on HUMAN INTELLIGENCE. Costly? Sure. But actually cheaper in actual terms than a $10B technology solution that in fact will be less effective than human screeners.

Again: it works for the Israelis. It can work for us.

Posted by: thibaud on July 16, 2004 02:38 PM

Hi Knucklehead - to your comments:

"I would like to note for the audience that there doesn't seem to be any hard and fast evidence that these guys were up to anything and were anything other than musicians....There were a bunch of men who, through [racial] PROFILING, were noticed for suspicious behavior and were watched by air marshalls and confronted upon landing."

My solution addresses this issue directly. You ask the musicians some basic questions about their work-- what instrument each plays, who's the bandleader, what the occasion of the concert is, when it starts, etc-- and then assess their answers with common sense.

Here's a thought: if one of our Syrians says he's a musician, how about asking him to take out his instrument and play a tune?

Or maybe you could ask the name of their group? How long they've been playing together? Who their manager is?

It's not rocket science, people. The beauty of this approach is that a trained questioner will very quickly spot liars. There will be almost no "false positives" (people who are not terrorists) because normal people know exactly where and why they're traveling.

Of course real terrorists can still defeat the system, but to do so they need to have a superb story concocted that's readily verifiable AND be able to tell it without either contradiction or the slightest facial or bodily tic. How many people who are about to kill themselves can do this?

Posted by: thibaud on July 16, 2004 02:52 PM

I think it was a band of Syrian musicians who decided to have some fun F'ing with the infidels. Probably they've been traveling around the country to their gigs, questioned at every airport, never allowed to sit together and not liking America much to begin with... so why not yank our chain?

C'mon people, we can't keep contraband out of PRISONS... much less public transportation.

We'll never make life perfectly safe in a free country, except by doing exactly what Bush is trying to do... take the fight to them... beat them on their home field. Here at home we've just got to suck it up, take our little chances and not get wobbly about supporting the people taking the real risks/ doing the hard jobs. Let's just get on with it.

Posted by: Alan on July 16, 2004 03:00 PM

Thibaud - it's going to be obvious that you and I will have a difference of opinion on the 'self-defeating obsession with technology'. Note only do I work in a high-tech field (both with computers and medicine), but my degree is in genetics, so I'm, very admittedly hooked on technology. That being said, I do agree that you have to pick technology that works.

However, you've only addressed on of my points. I do understand that the salary your suggesting was fully-loaded and would be good pay for folks. However, your assertion that it would be filled by people who are keen on analysis just doesn't seem to hold water with me. I agree, it's tons better than a pysch major would make (since they'll likely be a fry chef at McDonalds), however, it is MIND-NUMBINGLY boring except to a very small subset of researchers - who'll be much more interested in dealing with what they consider to be 'true research'.

As for gather HumInt rather than other forms, it certainly has its place in the scheme of things. But, it's just as fallable as any other method. Given that, you're suggesting an expensive (not that technology isn't expensive), efficiency clogging, cost increasing system.

Lastly, the system you're proposing has worked in another culture. Let's consider that - it's a completely different mindset and culture in Israel than it is here. The same arguments are made over gun control, drug use, and many other social issues - use what works in one culture and it will automatically work here. However, what people need to consider is that what works in one culture doesn't necessarily translate well to another.

Example: gun control. Imagine this - a culture that has basically every household having an assault rifle. Murder rate should be through the roof, shouldn't it? Well, it isn't. Switzerland has one of the lowest firearms related death rates out there. However, if you tried that here in the US, you'd be in big trouble...

Short end of this is that I think you're suggesting a system that has merits, but may very well be unworkable for our economy. We can't just have knee-jerk solutions - we need to look at our society, how current processes function, and then develop a workable solution that keeps us as a free country but still protects the citizens.

Posted by: Ron on July 16, 2004 03:06 PM

Here's the bottom line. We can afford a plane crash. We can't afford to let the bad guys choose the crash site. When you understand that, the story makes more sense.

(BTW, in case you're wondering, I get on a plane at least 100 times each year.)

Posted by: Dr. Scott on July 16, 2004 03:10 PM

Why is it that every time I hear about how these guys claimed they were musicians I hear Dan Akroyd saying "France, we come from France..."

Posted by: Brent on July 16, 2004 03:13 PM

The only thing I could think of was telling the McDonald's guy that I was hungry and trying to buy his cheeseburger.

Now I have to take back all the nasty things I said about the airlines for stopping the lavatory lines. SORRY AIRLINES!! YOU WERE RIGHT!

Posted by: Persnickety on July 16, 2004 03:15 PM

I've always been in favor of having all the passengers on a flight examine each others luggage. We all have an instinctive sense for danger. We should learn to trust it more, and the authorities have to have the right to look into every item carried onto a plane. We ought to have air marshalls on every flight with at least one with a badge and a gun at the entry point.

Squeamishness over 'racial profiling' be damned. If honest Arabs and Muslims want others to trust them, they should be more willing to help defeat those who are creating this image of them. It may not be fair, but people draw conclusions when they see the faces of the 9/11 hijackers and realize that they all belong to a certain minority. The best way to defeat that is to become over cooperative and prove to others without their asking that you are not a threat. If your religion doesn't allow that, get a new one.

Posted by: AST on July 16, 2004 03:30 PM

AST - that is the same logic that's been used by the majority groups trying to suppress minorities since we've been a culture. It's occurred with blacks in the ghetto's, the Vietnamese in Texas, Hispanics in the Florida, Texas, and California, etc. One thing to realize - every terrorist isn't Middle Eastern. And to say - here, I'll trust you at some nebulous point in the future, but for right now I'm going to treat you like a second class citizen and you should thank me for the opportunity flies in the face of our Constitution and principles of this country. If someone came up to me and said - hey, you look like you belong to a group of terrorists, I'm going to harass the shit out of you everywhere you go, I'd have an issue with it. I'm a citizen and I have the right to live in a free manner until such a time as I prove that I'm not capable of doing that without causing undue economic or physical harm to the other citizens (the whole principle of innocent until proven guilty, you know?). Until that time, we've no right to detain people. IF, and only if, they've engaged in a behavior that is considered probable cause, are we allowed to search, detain, etc. Does this open us up, as a country, to individuals who want to harm us? Yes it does. However, the alternative is to live in a police state where the government has the right to harass you at any time. I'm not willing to trade my freedom for that sort of safety...

Posted by: Ron on July 16, 2004 03:44 PM

What works in Israel cannot work in America due to the nature of business travel. Israel doesn't have the equivalent of a Boston-NYC shuttle for business travelers, as the country has only one major airport, and is surrounded by its sworn enemies. Given the scope and distance of any Israeli flight, an extra 30 minutes is negligible.

As well, Israel has been in a constant state of war since before its inception.

Posted by: Matt G on July 16, 2004 03:51 PM

The flight crew and pilots were aware at all times about what was going on. Aviation Week has noted several times that pilots are asking for and receiving training in how to fly an airplane in a way that "disables unsecured persons" (via bouncing them off the ceiling like pingpong balls). Aviation Week reports that testing has revealed a simple .5g pushover was all that was needed to do the trick, easily within the realm of what commercial airliners are capable of.

This is not fantasy.

In September of 1970, the PFLP hijacked four planes. One was flown to Egypt and the other three to Jordan. After the passengers were released, all four planes were exploded. Three of those hijackings were on Sept. 6, when there was also an attempt to hijack a fourth plane, an El Al 707, that day. While the plane was still climbing out of Amsterdam on the way to New York, two hijackers tried to take control of the plane. One shot a male flight attendant who struggled with him. A female flight attendent who had been pistol whipped recovered and ran to the back of the plane to notify the armed marshall and also triggered the hijack warning to the flight crew. When the hijackers demanded to be let into the locked flight deck, the crew wasn't sure what to do. The captain, Uri Bar Lev, realized that because he was still climbing everyone but the hijackers and flight attendents were all still belted in their seats, so he put the plane into a steep dive. The plane dropped 26,000 feet in three minutes, creating zero g in the cabin, and then Bar Lev suddenly leveled off so the terrorists would come crashing back down. At that point the second marshall, who had been on the flight deck, burst out into the cabin and fatally shot the male hijacker. The female terrorist either passed out or was knocked out during the acrobatics. The plane made an emergency landing in London so the wounded steward could get medical attention. Because an Israeli marshal who shot a hijacker in an earlier attempt had been detained in Italy for a year after the shooting, Bar Lev taxied the plane in very slowly so the marshalls could slip off the plane and onto an outgoing El Al flight on the tarmac at the time.

The pilot knew that the 707 could withstand the stress because while training on the plane at Boeing, his instructor told him that the airframe was sturdy enough to to a loop, so he did a loop in the trainer. This isn't surprising. Tex Johnson, Boeing test pilot, secured the 707's place as the first commercially successful jet airliner, by putting the prototype through a couple of aileron rolls while performing a demo flight for potential customers.

You can read more about the story here: http://www.stuffmagazine.com/articles/html/article_425.html

Posted by: ronnie schreiber on July 16, 2004 04:25 PM

If they were musicians, they were conceivably taking turns going into the bathroom to get stoned. That would explain most of their odd behavior.

Posted by: jms on July 16, 2004 05:26 PM


I work in technology as well and therefore understand its limitations--especially around data quality and data-sharing. I'll put my money in humint, thanks.

Matt G,

"What works in Israel cannot work in America due to the nature of business travel. Israel doesn't have the equivalent of a Boston-NYC shuttle for business travelers, as the country has only one major airport, and is surrounded by its sworn enemies. Given the scope and distance of any Israeli flight, an extra 30 minutes is negligible."

But everyone has to go through security in the US, even if he's only flying a shuttle. Questioning takes only 2 minutes max. Why can't the business travelers be questioned while they're having their bags screened?

"As well, Israel has been in a constant state of war since before its inception."

Would it not be helpful to remind Americans that we too are at war? And that, given the jihadists' deep attraction to blowing up airliners, anyone flying a plane is certainly on the front lines now?

Posted by: thibaud on July 16, 2004 06:59 PM

Not to rub it in, Ron, but given that database software has created so many nightmares for the private sector, why on earth should we rely on it instead of human screening?

Do you really prefer Larry Ellison's approach to the Israeli approach?

Posted by: thibaud on July 16, 2004 07:08 PM

The article was scary to read. I hope the situation has improved before my next trip to America. Isn't it time to take care of the root of the problem? I have discussed this issue in my post, THE BATTLE OF IDEAS: CHICKENHAWKS VERSUS PACIFICISTS.

All the Best,

Martin Lindeskog - American in Spirit.
Gothenburg, Sweden.

Posted by: Martin Lindeskog on July 16, 2004 07:33 PM


Your suggestions are perfectly acceptable to me as part of the "screen everyone" solution. I also have no objection the monitoring with other technology in ADDITION to human screening. Screen, monitor, profile by sensible criteria (what might those be?) and randomly do deeper or repeat screenings. Those who don't like it can drive or Go Greayhound as far as I'm concerned. When I get on a plane I want to arrive alive. And I don't want some lunatics using any more planes as weapons to kill my neighbors and fellow citizens. I'll pay yet another 30 minutes of screening time (or whatever) and I'll suffer the indignity of being monitored. Hire people, train them, staff it - write up the memo for my signature ;)

Posted by: Knucklehead on July 16, 2004 08:28 PM

Hmm, what WOULD happen to me if I'd been on that airline, I'm a white male, and I decided to try the following:
Look for another male whose family seems as distraught as mine, and talk to him about blocking the aisle and only letting one of the passengers to the privy at once. If two of us did this, probably other folks would get the stones to back us up as well.

Assuming this all went well, what would authorities do to me after, if anything? Anyone have any real answers?

Posted by: hyperstork on July 17, 2004 07:51 AM


"Also let's eliminate the carry on luggage. We could have a special service for people who need medical supplies, but forget about the carry on and such. Perhaps we could allow carry on so long as you cant take it out of the bins during flight."

My husband suggested this as well.

It'd be devastating to the airline industry.
A flight is *4 and a half hours long*
What do you expect people to do on the airplane if they can't take anything on board?

I know I'd be seriously consider any way OTHER than plane to go if I couldn't take carry ons on.

It is also makes airplanes impossible for families with small children.

Posted by: S. Schreffler on July 17, 2004 10:11 AM

Isn't it time for someone other than our Military and their families to do a little sacrificing for this war? sob,sob," I had to get to airport 3 hours early." Tough!
And since we are fighting against islamic terrorists, I don't think it's too much to ask Islamic people to sacrifice a little more. They should be glad we don't do as Democrat Roosevelt did and put them in camps. Heck , we can pay them later.

Posted by: Barbara A Luther on July 17, 2004 03:20 PM

Barbara - you are out of your friggin mind. Seriously. How about I ask you to sacrifice your privacy, your right to free travel, THE RIGHT TO BE CONSIDERED INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY - that basic tenets that this country was founded on just because there are some nutjobs in your religion?!?!

Seriously, you actually advocate (if I'm reading your post correctly) putting people in camps just due to their religion?!? Hmmm - who was the last person that did that? Could it be.... HITLER?!?!?!

get a clue

Posted by: Ron on July 17, 2004 08:53 PM

Spare us the "righteous indignation" routine, Ron, and read up on your history before you decide to compare the US to Nazi Germany again.


Posted by: dexter green on July 17, 2004 10:29 PM

I have read up on the history. I've also lived in three different countries and travelled to many more. I've seen the differences between free societies and effective dictatorships. I'm ex-military and my family has been fought in every single war this country has been in - fought to keep the rights of this country. What I was saying to Barbara is that these rights are absolutely key to our society and the suggestion that we lock people in camps does, in fact, compare very well to what happened with Hitler. I also know every well that we locked Japanese people living in America during WWII in camps as well, and that we've attempted to compensate for that - however, I consider that a HUGE blemish on our reputation.

If I've missed your point, please let me know - I'll be more than happy to discuss it.

Posted by: Ron on July 17, 2004 11:10 PM

I wish people would read the original story more closely. There are numerous references to the "musicians'" behavior that were plenty alarming (finger across the throat, clustering in the rear of the plane, going into the loo with a full bag and coming out with a nearly empty one, etc.).

Maybe this in fact was a trial run to test security and passenger reactions. Maybe the 19 were so ignorant or self absorbed they only thought about their mission. Maybe the 19 would eventually be broken into smaller groups. Maybe modified versions of this incident had occurred on other flights and either no one noticed or were not reported.

One thing is certain: American law enforcement is still stuck in the what-to-do-after-the-fact mode than preventing the incident in the first place. Those 19 should not have been allowed on that flight together. They should have been red flagged when they bought their one-way tickets.

I assume the reporter is no commercial airline expert and isn't versed on flight security matters. But the details of her writing and her observations were enough to scare the hell out of me. They shoulf scare the rest of you, too.

Posted by: gary on July 19, 2004 09:41 AM

Ron, you said "I'm a citizen and I have the right to live in a free manner until such a time as I prove that I'm not capable of doing that without causing undue economic or physical harm to the other citizens (the whole principle of innocent until proven guilty, you know?). Until that time, we've no right to detain people." Are we obligated to grant the same constitutional rights to visiting musicians from Syria as we are to our own citizens? I'm not advocating throwing law abiding arab muslims in a prison camp, but what about maybe shutting down the easy entry a little? Make it a lot harder to come here. Make it a lot harder to disappear on a student visa. Tighten up the borders a bit. I realize it all takes money, but you know why profiling exists? Because it works. As a black male, I can tell you that yeah, sometimes it sucks. But if Black males were knocking planes out of the sky, I'd be at least a bit understanding if I was given some extra attention at the gate. As for the Syrians, maybe we should have just made them take out their instruments and play a few tunes. And warn them ahead of time that they better not suck. :)

Posted by: Anderson on July 20, 2004 08:07 PM

I can certainly support making it harder for entry visas and the like. We need to make the changes across the board, but it isn't a bad idea.

Also, to your point about non-citizens having the same rights, I'm not sure about the actual legal status, but it is my belief that they are to be extended the same rights as a citizen. If they are found guilty of a crime, I believe we send them back to their country and bar further entry or something to that effect. not sure, but I believe that's the case.

Posted by: Ron on July 20, 2004 10:05 PM

Law enforcement in this country has always been stuck in a what-to-do-after-the-fact mode. Hopefully it will always be in that mode, because you can't arrest someone for a crime they have not committed, even if there is no doubt that they were going to commit the crime. (Well, you can, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms that shouldn't be opened lightly.)

Like it or not, you can't accuse someone of murder until someone else has died. Negligence, endangerment, even attempted murder, sure, but not an actual murder. That's the way our justice system is, that's the way it will hopefully always be, and that's the way the police have to do things, because they are the enforcement arm of our justice system.

Posted by: Tatterdemalian on July 21, 2004 01:04 AM

I would like to know where those 14 highjackers are now. Did they really play in a concert, and I am sorry but if I was on that plane and saw that I would have said something. You cant take any chances. I dont care if I am being racist. I just want to get where I am going safely. I hope that everyone reading this comment takes my words seriously.

Posted by: Tom on July 25, 2004 06:10 PM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?