Airport Security Expert Says U.S. Didn't Learn From Shoe Bomber

The top security consultant at Logan International Airport in Boston says the United States has failed to learn the security lessons raised when a man tried to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner in 2001 with explosives in his shoes.

Rafi Ron, who once headed security at the famously safe Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, told The Associated Press on Wednesday the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day shows the U.S. still relies too much on technology to prevent attacks.

Ron says there needs to be more personal screening of passengers, specifically at the point where a TSA officer compares their boarding pass and identification. Anyone deemed suspicious should receive an extended interview and more weapons screening, he said.

"We felt so comfortable with the use of technology, which is so politically safe for everybody, that we failed to see that we are not really fulfilling the role and providing a good level of security," said Ron.

He was hired by Logan after two airliners were hijacked from the airport and crashed into the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"We think that if we just add more and more machines, we, at some point, we will create a situation that will be impossible for the terrorists to act. Obviously, this is doomed to fail," Ron said. "There are so many ways to use the loopholes left by technology."

He cited the 9/11 hijackers' use of box cutters for weapons because metal detectors searched for more onerous guns. The success of their plot prompted the government to ban — at least for a while — most types of metal objects in the passenger cabin.

Three months later, in December 2001, Richard Reid subverted the enhanced metals search by planting explosives in his shoes before trying to blow up an American Airlines flight that eventually made an emergency landing at Logan. His attempt prompted the government to require that passengers remove their shoes and send them through an x-ray machine before boarding their flight.

In 2006, British intelligence officials foiled an alleged plot to blow up 10 trans-Atlantic airliners with liquid bombs. That prompted the United States to control the size of liquid containers allowed on passenger planes.

Late last month, a 23-year-old Nigerian student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly subverted the shoe and liquids search by hiding explosives in his underwear. He was seriously burned after they failed to detonate on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Ron said security consultants had a joke in the aftermath of the Reid attack in which they quipped passengers were lucky Reid hid his explosives in his shoes rather than underwear. Otherwise, the joke went, they might have to disrobe at checkpoints.

"Well, Abdulmutallab may have heard this joke and decided to take his device in his underwear," Ron said, only partly in jest.

He is seeking behavioral — not racial — profiling based on a personal interview. While Israeli security forces speak with all passengers for at least a minute, Ron said it would be more practical in United States, which is larger and has far more air traffic, to conduct a brief initial interview at the ID checkpoint.

Those raising suspicion could be steered toward another TSA officer — with law enforcement powers so they can detain people for questioning — and a more extensive interview. Both sets of passengers would continue to face technological checks, as well.

"Right now, that component of a full-scale interview at the checkpoint is completely nonexistent. Period," Ron said. "And as long as we don't have it, we are giving up one of the most powerful tools that we have available, because terrorists are so bad in preparing their cover stories and their ability to even hold their cover story when they prepare one."