Review: TERROR IN THE SKIES by Annie Jacobsen

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Terror in the Skies: Why 9/11 Could Happen Again

(FULL DISCLOSURE: This book was provided to Murdoc Online by Spence Publishing at my request. I follow my standard practice of reviewing a book by selecting some passages that support my position on matters and explaining how they’re correct.)

During the summer of 2004, I became aware of the strange story of Northwest Airlines Flight 327. First the blogosphere, and then Legacy Media, picked up the story of the disturbing behavior of some passengers, purportedly Syrian musicians, as reported by some of the other passengers on the flight.

As the theories, claims, and counter-claims were fired back and forth by various individuals and organizations, I kept silent on the matter. I had my own theories about the situation faced by commercial airline travel, but it was evident that this particular story was turning into a battleground for the various factions as they struggled to get their points across and to discredit the opposition. Not nearly as partisan as many would believe, I never once even posted on the story here at Murdoc Online, instead waiting to see what would become of the incident.

What became of it was nothing. Nothing at all.

And, despite the concern that the claims of Annie Jacobsen and other passengers and crew on that flight should raise, the alarm bells should be ringing over the actions and in-actions of our government and media as details of the flight began to surface. For while defeating a fanatical, suicidal enemy hell-bent on destroying our civilization is a daunting enough task, it’s weaknesses and enemies within that could spell doom for our way of life.

The Prologue:

On June 29, 2004, my husband, my son, and I were returning ho me from my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary celebration in Connecticut. Our connecting flight to Los Angeles was Northwest Airlines flight 327 from Detroit. It should have been just another flight. Instead, fourteen Middle Eastern men acted as if they might hi-jack the plane. There were air marshals on board monitoring the tense situation, and the captain of the Boeing 757 radioed ahead for help. Just a few minutes before flight 327 landed, one of the men stood in the aisle, made a slashing motion across his neck with his hand, and mouthed the word “No.”

Approximately twenty-five federal agents and local law enforcement officers met the plane at the gate. My husband and I spent the next two hours giving statements. Yet come the next morning, the story was absent from the news.

I wrote about the harrowing flight in an article called “Terror in the Skies, Again?” which was published on WomensWallStreet.com. The story spread like wildfire across the Internet and quickly became world news. Within forty-eight hours, pilots, flight attendants, and federal air marshals flooded the webzine with emails, stating that what happened on flight 327 was not an isolated incident. These kinds of “dry runs” had been happening, they said, and if the government didn’t do something about it, 9/11 would happen again.

The federal agencies involved in the incident defended themselves aggressively, claiming that they had conducted a thorough investigation. The men involved were nothing more than a musical band. But the Story wouldn’t go away–in fact, it got bigger. Ultimately, Congress got involved.

I’ve spent the last year investigating the tangled tale of flight 327. I’ve uncovered the alarming details of what happened on the flight and–alarming in another way altogether–how the government agencies involved in the investigation wanted the story to go away so badly, they went on national television and lied.

The Department of Homeland Security has also spent the last year investigating what went on during and after flight 327. And the U.S. House Judiciary Committee has spent as much time looking into the errors made by many of the federal agents involved. But these agents have stayed firm: nothing happened on flight 327, they claim. Nothing happened.

Something did happen on flight 327. And in this book, I tell what happened. I also tell what I’ve learned from those at high levels of government, air marshals, the media, and ordinary flyers. We can’t take nothing happened for an answer.

It’s hard to know what to make of Jacobsen’s story. As one who firmly believes our nation is locked in a World War with the enemies of free and modern civilization, I’m probably more open-minded about her story than, say, an anti-war peace activist marching in San Fransisco. But even the harshest critic of George Bush’s War on Terror and America’s timid attempts to secure the homeland have to be troubled by the reaction her story brought from, well, just about everyone in a position to actually do anything.

Regular readers will know that I’m more than a bit skeptical about the current state of airline security. Try this on for size:

In Detroit, no one checked who we were or what we carried on board a 757 jetliner bound for America’s second-most-populated city.

I placed a call to the TSA and talked to Joe Dove, a customer service supervisor. I told him how my family and I had eaten with metal utensils in an airport diner moments before boarding the flight and that no one checked our luggage or the instrument cases carried on board by the Middle Eastern men. Dove’s response was, “Restaurants in secured areas–that’s an ongoing problem.”

How could no one have checked who they were or what they carried on board a 757? They had been checked in Providence, Rhode Island, of course. But during their layover in Detroit they were not re-screened as they had not left the “secure area” filled with God-knows-how many sorts of improvised weapons. It’s an “ongoing problem”.

Another ongoing problem seems to be our unwillingness to have the guts to check those passengers most likely to be terrorists. Instead we play silly games and pretend that everyone is equally-likely to be a terrorist, and that to act otherwise is somehow unfair.

Rafi Ron is an authority on and an advocate of passenger profiling. As the former head of security at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, he is an expert on the subject. What Ron told Congress, in February 2002, about passenger profiling is fascinating. After an El Al flight was hijacked by Palestinian and Syrian terrorists in 1968, the Israeli government determined that a real threat existed and a system needed to be put in place to combat that threat. They also determined that a thorough passenger check amounted to a fifty-seven minute procedure. An hour search per person, in any airport, in any country, would be far too time-consuming (not to mention expensive), so the Israeli government put a passenger profiling system in place–not a racial profiling system, a passenger profiling one.

El Al uses a method that allows airport personnel to make intelligent decisions–not racist decisions–about who might be a good candidate for a more thorough search. It’s hard to argue that the El Al system doesn’t work: the airline hasn’t lost a plane to terrorists in over thirty-five years.

Terrorists certainly haven’t lost interest in Israeli aviation, they’ve simply been stymied.

If decades of experience teaches us that red-headed stepchildren are a threat–well, then let’s get them and beat them. But it’s not red-headed children at all, and it’s also not eighty-five year-old women or octogenarian men in wheelchairs. I think we all know who we need to watch the closest, playing nothing but percentages. If I whisper this open secret, though, I risk being labeled a racist. So I won’t even dare mention Arab men between the ages of 17 and 35, for instance. Or maybe a traveling band of Middle Eastern men with expired visas. Men like those on Northwest 327.

Mrs. Jacobsen delves into this and troubling issue and, even more alarmingly, the fact that these sorts of people weren’t checked out even after their bizarre behavior on Flight 327. I’ve argued before that I marvel at the fact that we are so irresponsible about security in this country after 9/11. It’s even more incredible that a group of Middle Eastern men was not carefully checked out after their suspicious behavior after 9/11. Folks, that simply is not acceptable. If these guys really, truly are just innocent musicians, then I’m sorry. But if I acted like these guys apparently acted, DHS had better come down on me like a ton of bricks. And I don’t even fit the profile. To give these guys a free pass is simply begging for disaster. If it happened this time, it happens all the time.

And, again giving these Syrians the benefit of the doubt, if it happens all the time the people planning to do bad things know it, regardless of who these particular individuals were. And if they know they’ll exploit it. That is certainly a lesson we should have learned by now.

A fair amount of time is also spent on the Federal Air Marshal Service, another topic that gets my blood pressure up.

Since its inception, the FAMS has portrayed air marshals as America’s silent heroes, “unseen, unheard and unafraid.” But by the summer of 2004, a series of articles about the service painted a different picture altogether, one that left many Americans rethinking the reality behind the agency’s facade. “Air Marshals Say Dress Code Makes Them Stand Out” read the New York Times. “Policies May Blow Air Marshals’ Cover” reported the Los Angeles Times. “Unsafe Air Marshals” said the Boston Globe, and these were just a few of the articles. Air marshals were in fact easily identifiable, unable to speak out, and afraid for their safety.

That isn’t exactly what we were going for, if I remember, when we went big-time with the program. We were actually trying to help. I still can’t decide whether the FAMs actually make things better or not. That’s pitiful. Although the “Kill Me First” dress code has been relaxed slightly (maybe), we still seem to have so far to go.

When the debate over the dress code first gained attention, I suggested that perhaps it was a smokescreen to mask the true identity of the marshals. I wish that I had enough faith to believe that. For smart people we sure do dumb things some times. And my gut tells me this is one of those times.

Regardless, our enemies are working hard to make sure they know the truth and to analyze it for weakness. Every defense has some weakness, and those we fight today are masters at finding it and exploiting it. So why do we seem to be making it easy for them?

The 9/11 Commission Report makes one thing crystal clear: leadership is imperative to winning the War on Terror. The inspector general’s report could point out a thousand problems and suggest a thousand solutions, but what good would it do if no one is in charge?

Here, I have to hold the president ultimately responsible. Somebody needs to define what we’re doing and how we’re going to do it. Bureaucracy is going to muck so many things up so much of the time, but we can ill-afford coordination and communication errors like those that let the 9/11 hijackers accomplish three-quarters of their mission. The stakes are too high and the cost of failure is so steep.

With the passing of the Intel Bill, commercial airline pilots will now be required to report suspicious incidents directly to the TSA. This is a major step in the right direction–a reform both pilots and flight attendants have been urging for years. Many airlines had policies in place to “intercept” this kind of information first–as in the case of United 925–much of which then went missing. With the new TSA directive, pilots will be required by the government to report dubious activity to the T5A Operations Center in Herndon, Virginia–in real time, as events are unfolding in the air.

It comes as no surprise that the airlines are not happy about this. Doug Willis, spokesman for the Air Transport Association (a major airline lobby), criticized the new directive saying it only adds “another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy” to the system. To bolster his argument, Willis used as an example the plethora of reports filed by airline passengers each day, including ones for rudeness. But complaints about rudeness aren’t the reports at issue, and they’re certainly not the ones pilots are going to phone home to the TSA.

It remains to be seen how much good the Intel Bill brings. Like all government, it’s bound to bring a fair amount of bad along with the good.

Many have argued that another 9/11 is not going to happen because our airline passengers are no longer going to sit by and let hijackers do what they want to do. While there’s certainly a lot of truth to this theory, I find little comfort in it.

Often times in sports, once you find an opponent’s weakness, you continue to attack that weakness until he finds a way to counter-act effectively. If running sweeps to the right works, you pretty much keep running sweeps to the right until they demonstrate the ability to stop you. If an opposing hitter cannot hit a curve ball, keep throwing him curves until he teaches you to stop.

Some will say that Flight 93 demonstrated our ability to keep hijackers from using airliners as missiles. The “a pack, not a herd” mentality. And I believe that there is a good deal of truth to this. But these “probes” and “dry runs” could very likely be an organized effort to determine whether Flight 93 was an aberration. Or a methodical attempt to create tactics to counter the pack. Or use the pack against us.

Don’t forget that it’s our September 10th defenses and mentalities that they exploited on the morning of September 11th. They didn’t have a magic bullet to defeat our barriers. They simply explored those barriers until they not only could breach them, but use them as shields to give them time to carry out their mission.

If a hitter has never been able to hit a curve ball previously, then one day hits a game-winning home run off of a curve, do you never throw that guy a curve ball again? Or do you maybe simply adjust the velocity or location of the pitch slightly? Isn’t that what these probes could be?

Simply blowing an airliner out of the sky over a densely-populated area would be a great victory for our enemies. And all that takes is a bomb onboard. If you can’t bring one, maybe you bring the parts and build it. Say, in the bathroom.

Another possibility, of course, is that these probes are nothing more than a sham to keep us looking in the wrong direction. A low-cost method of tying down monumental levels of resources while they plan their next master stroke. Remember the Air France flights of Christmas Eve, 2003? As far as we know, nothing happened.

This is going to be a long war. Most of it will be fought in the shadows and under the radar of public consciousness. But these sorts of incidents are not reassuring.

Annie Jacobsen and the other witnesses on Flight 327 may have all been mistaken. The many who claim to have had similar experiences on other flights may be nothing more than jumpy. But in this day and age, we cannot dare let up for one single moment. When we do, things like the aftermath of Flight 327 happen. And when things happen like they happened in TERROR IN THE SKIES, we’ve got more enemies than those out to kill us. We’ve also got ourselves.

Buy Terror in the Skies by Annie Jacobsen at Spence Publishing. Or at Amazon.

Comments

  1. I follow my standard practice of reviewing a book by selecting some passages that support my position on matters and explaining how they’re correct.’ Refreshingly honest, sir. And, with that right out there in front of God and everybody, nobody can snipe. Interesting review, by the way.

  2. Murdoc, the International Brotherhood of Reviewers and Critics Local 203, Detroit, is going to send Luigi and Benny over to ‘convince’ you that revealing trade secrets used by all decent reviewers is a very bad idea.