Harsh Words For (and a Request To) TSA Administrator Pistole

May 20, 2013

To: TSA Administrator John Pistole, Washington, DC

From: 9/11 widow Rebecca Marchand, Phoenix, Arizona

Dear Administrator Pistole:

As you know, I was widowed on 9/11 when my husband, United Airlines Flight Attendant Alfred Marchand, was murdered by terrorists using box cutters to slash the throats of flight attendants. Today my 27-year old son is a flight attendant. After repeatedly asking for an invitation to a TSA briefing on your decision to allow knives back on flights, I am outraged at the excuses I have been given. I have the right to comment on this issue. You are ignoring many stakeholders who have a right to be heard and I will not go away without being allowed to comment face-ta-face on this change.

You took a solemn oath to secure not only aircraft but also the passengers and crew aboard. From the start, you mishandled the knives proposal by failing to get input from airlines, flight crews, your own employees or anyone else but your inner circle. The announcement was a complete surprise to the aviation community and a huge blow to 9/11 families. I am sickened by your approach. It’s possible this is the way you did business at the FBI, but it is utterly inappropriate in the job you now hold involving so many important stakeholders.

TSA has repeatedly claimed that allowing knives on passenger flights follows an international standard when in fact there is no international standard. The USA should be the leader in aviation security. We were the ones attacked by terrorists with box cutters. After the Boston bombings, TSA delayed implementation ostensibly to get “more input.” We now know you never intended to seek input from the “public.” I believe the delay was used as a way to distance the knife policy from the bombings and quiet the TSA’s critics. But I will not be silenced or stand by and let the TSA put passengers and crew members at risk the way the US government failed nearly 3,000 people on 9/11.

I request that you schedule a briefing open to all 9/11 family members who wish to attend and to seriously consider their input. You, Sir, still get to go home to your wife every night. It has been almost 12 years since I lost the chance to ever see my husband again. The 9/11 families’ loved ones were stolen from us by men using box cutter blades smaller than the knives you now want to allow on planes. I look forward to your prompt emailed response to my request.

Further Examination of NW253

Today and tomorrow on the Hill, there will be a few committee hearings so that legislators can better understand what went wrong leading up to the attempted bombing of NW253 on Christmas.  They are (from GovExec):

  • Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee – Hearing [ 09:30 am, 01/20/2010 ]
    Full committee hearing on “Intelligence Reform: The Lessons and Implications of the Christmas Day Attack,” focusing on the attempted bombing incident on Flight 253 to Detroit on December 25.
    Witness(es): Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano; Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair; and Michael Leiter, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, testify.  The chairman, Senator Joe Lieberman, spoke about this committee hearing on NPR this morning.
  • Senate Judiciary Committee – Hearing [ 10:00 am, 01/20/2010 ]
    Full committee hearing on “Securing America’s Safety: Improving the Effectiveness of Anti-Terrorism Tools and Inter-Agency Communication.”
    Witness(es): Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy; Assistant Homeland Security Secretary for Policy David Heyman, testify
  • Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – Hearing [ 02:30 pm, 01/20/2010 ]
    Full committee hearing on “The State of Aviation Security – Is Our Current System Capable of Meeting the Threat?” focusing on the attempted bombing incident on Flight 253 to Detroit on December 25.
    Witness(es): TBA
  • Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee – Briefing [ 02:30 pm, 01/21/2010 ]
    Full committee closed hearing on the attempted bombing incident on Flight 253 to Detroit on December 25.

We are proud that Rosemary Dillard was on the Hill today representing NADA/F!

TSA Administrator

Also, much attention was paid to the fact that there was no TSA Administrator in place when the attempted bombing of NW253 occurred.  While Senator DeMint has opposed the nomination of Erroll Southers based on perceived differences of labor policy.  It was actually Southers’ past abuse of power, in his position as chief of security with the LAX police, that caused wider doubt as to his suitability for the job.  He has withdrawn himself from consideration (via CongressDaily and GovExec).  I have to say this is a good move, since these recent questions only prevented an efficient confirmation process.  And, this position needs to be filled!

The Government Response

In the week following the attempted bombing of Flight 253, we’ve already seen several stages in the government response to the incident.  And, yes, I use the word “government” broadly, since we are talking about agencies, the executive and legislative branches.  And, other goverments have responded too, but here I’ll just talk about the U.S.

Department of Homeland Security

Secretary Janet Napolitano made quite the misstep, when she originally stated that “the system worked (clip from CNN).”  In trying to assure people, her point was that the action taken subsequent to the fire on the flight was swift and appropriate.  But, it was misinterpreted to mean there was proactive action, which clearly, there wasn’t.

One other issue has come up with this first statement.  While she said all pilots in the air were informed, today the Coalition of Airline Pilots Association disputed that (via WOAW TV 9).  She and President Obama have since identified some of the human and systemic failings and we are learning more every day.  President Obama receives the report of preliminary findings today (via USA Today).

Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana was the first to call for Napolitano’s resignation (via The Hill).  This has become political very quickly and Republicans in Congress have taken this opportunity to criticize the adminstration policy (via AFP).

Transportation Security Administration

The Transportation Security Administration was swift to implement a modified directive that was supposed to be in place through yesterday.  But it was unclear at the time, if it applied to all flights, and for how long.  Among some of the actions taken on flights were  limiting passenger activity for the last hour of the flight and taking televisions and live maps offline.  Since, at least, two bloggers received the directive via email and posted it, there was plenty of online discussion of its contents, relevancy and consistency in implementation.  Many passengers were curious to know what would apply to them and the TSA was not very communicative.  FoxNews had the story online, before the Department of Homeland Security got involved.  Now many outlets are writing about the subsequent subpoenas and investigation.  But, here’s the link to the USA Today story on what happened.  I can say from my original interpretation, I don’t think they realized until later that they were the only ones who had it. 

To our best knowledge, TSA is no longer following that directive.  However, they are looking at expanding the use of full body scanners (via FoxNews), among other things.

Although Erroll Southers was nominated to be TSA Administrator in September, and is a former FBI special agent with counter-terrorism expertise, he has not been confirmed by the Senate.  Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has blocked  the process over concerns the Southers is too friendly to collective bargaining (via WIBW).  I can’t help but think that not having a leader may just as much challenge an agency’s effectiveness as having a leader friendly to labor.  But, Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, says he will force a vote on the nominee in three weeks (Los Angeles Times).

Central Intelligence Agency and Department of State

I can only assume that these two agencies needed to contribute greatly to the preliminary report to President Obama.  Since we now know the suspect’s father communicated his concerns to the U.S. Embassy and the CIA (via ABC News), there must have been serious study of what happened (or didn’t) with that information. 

Intelligence and military leaders are also focused on the role Yemen likely played.  Yesterday, NPR ran a good story on the challenges there.

Northwest Flight 253, Christmas Day

As we all now know, a young Nigerian man (also of Yemeni descent), on Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas, brought explosives on board with intent to do greater damage than was actually done.   And oh, has it revealed holes in the U.S. and global security systems.  DHS Secretary, Janet Napolitano, finally said as much this morning (story over at NPR).  But, from intelligence and watch lists to screening, a lot went wrong.  It was fortunate for the crew and passengers on that flight that his detonator also failed somewhat.  And, as passenger Jasper Schuringa reminded us, quick-thinking and acting crew and citizens can help out a lot in these situations (via the Detroit Free-Press).

Since then, the suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was treated for his burns and is now being held at a federal prison in Michigan.  His detention hearing was postposed and is now scheduled for January 8 (via NY Post).  We have learned that he had ties to a Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda and that his family was concerned enough to bring him to the attention of the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria (via The Washington Post, subscription).  That report resulted in him being added, just a month later, to a U.S. terrorism-related database but not to any aviation watch list (The Washington Post).

NPR had an interview this evening with a witness to a potential accomplice.  He also seems to question whether or not the suspect had appropriate documentation to travel.

There is some discussion about whether or not the primary explosive, PETN, could have been detected with standard equipment.  The Washington Post has a good article on the kind of equipment that CAN detect it and the reasons it hasn’t been fully implemented.  A full pat-down may have revealed the detonator, but in this case, the suspect wasn’t identified for additional screening.  Schiphol, Amsterdam’s Airport, is undertaking a full investigation of their procedures (via The Wall Street Journal) and is obviously, a little defensive.

Since there is more to say on the topic of what TSA has done with their procedures in the days following and the subsequent sensitivity to behavior on planes since, I’ll post on that later!

From the Last Few Days. . .

Because I will only post every few days, I will try to summarize news of note when I can!
Here is the first, “From the Last Few Days. . .”

Outrage and questions persist regarding the release of al-Megrahi.

A small plane made an emergency landing on the freeway in California (via San Luis Obispo Tribune).

The LA Times reports on control of wildlife and prevention of bird strikes at LAX.

Pan Am Flight 103

This is a tough way to start the blog.  When I committed to write about aviation issues for NADA/F, I was aware that there would be weeks like this.  Like others close to aviation disasters, I am familiar with years-long grief and frustration.  Of course, NADA/F’s work in the areas of safety, security, survivability and support allow positive outcomes, even if it takes time.

But today, the day after convicted terrorist, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, was released from his life sentence on ‘compassionate grounds,’ I feel sickened and discouraged.  Our thoughts are with the friends and family members of the victims of Pan Am 103.  Regardless of his health status, he was convicted of murder on 270 counts and his release is a miscarriage of justice.  He ended up serving just days for every life he took.  Much as been written about this in the last couple of days, so there isn’t much more for me to say than that.

I appreciate CNN’s coverage of this, including the Wolf Blitzer interview and some posts on the AC360 blog.  I encourage you to visit the victims of Pan Am 103 website to learn more.

I received word yesterday from Bob Monetti, whose son Rick was on the flight, that the families will be in New York City in September when Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, arrives for the opening session of the U.N General Assembly.  He wrote:

We are planning to give him a welcome worthy of the murderer of our loved ones.