The world is riveted by the missing Malaysian Airlines plane, and the world media has focused on it non-stop for over a week.
We’ve long since exhausted our national supply of ‘experts’ to the point where every man is now an expert, each with his own theory about what happened, some of which stretch the limits of credulity. We’ve heard just about every explanation short of The Rapture and alien abduction.
But let’s flip the topic from what we do or don’t know about the missing plane to what does the event and our response to it reveal about us?
For the sake of argument, let’s assume this was a terrorist dry run, or maybe a hijacking gone wrong, or a suicide mission by someone aboard the plane, or even a terrorist plot in midstream with more to come.
We have seen in the past that terrorists are nimble. They see our response to events, learn from it and incorporate it into their own planning.
There are folks out there who are watching our response to this crisis. They’re taking note of weaknesses, vulnerabilities and blind spots in the international air system in order to exploit them in the future. Though the world has taken more security precautions since September 11th, terrorists remain fixated on attacks on airplanes. Those attacks have now been made easier but what they’ve learned from our response to the missing Malaysian jetliner..
What have THEY learned us? Quite a bit, actually.
First, security in Third World countries and airports remains lax. The Malaysian flight's passenger manifest list had lots of holes.
Some passengers were travelling with stolen passports, despite those passports being listed in the Interpol database.
In a action reminiscent of the September 11 hijackers, some passengers bought their tickets with cash, at the last minute, and one-way only.
Some passengers didn’t show up for the flight, but apparently there was no effort to see whether they had checked-in baggage that was still on the plane.
Second, it turns out we don’t have eyes in the sky for everything. U.S. spy satellites can see anything bigger than a soccer ball. But that works only if we’re looking.
As a former NSA director told me, we’re still looking at China, Russia and North Korea. We’re not as focused further south, or in the Southern Hemisphere.
Third, not everyone in the world is sharing information. Our satellites may not be looking south, but maybe Chinese satellites are, especially since Malaysia borders the Strait of Malacca, one of China’s most important trade routes. The Chinese official press has criticized the U.S. for not sharing our satellite data. Are they sharing theirs?
Fourth, even if we have the technology it isn’t always used, or used correctly. There were three separate instances where the missing plane wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do.Yet Malaysian air traffic controllers missed them. India has radar but, according to some reports, turns it off at night to save money.
Fifth, Third World countries don’t screen pilots are crew are vigorously as we do. U.S. airline pilots and crew get regular medical evaluations every six months to certify their physical and mental health. The Malaysian pilots had issues that would have merited closer evaluation, yet they did not get it. If these had been U.S. pilots, officials would have quickly beaten a path to their homes to investigate them. Also, it took the Malaysian officials over a week to visit the pilots' homes after the plane disappeared.
Sixth, the airline host country was the lead country in this investigation. It was a Malaysian airplane, taking off from Malaysia, so Malaysia was in charge, even though it is not the A Team, or even the B Team.
The U.S. is the A Team, with naval assets in the region, with the most sophisticated intelligence capabilities.
Why were we not involved from the beginning? Did we offer? Were we told to stand down?
We don’t seem to have an agreed upon protocol for dealing with these incidents if they involve several countries.
Finally, despite Ukraine being the greatest major power crisis since the end of the Cold War, the world has been focused instead on the missing Malaysian airliner. Talk about media frenzy and public fascination.
If a terrorist group decided they wanted to command the world stage for their cause, what better than to repeat what we’ve just witnessed?
So while we may never know what happened to the Malaysian plane, we have given anyone who is watching a primer on how to exploit our weaknesses. This is not the last time an airliner will go missing.