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Six Years Later

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New York Empire State September 11, 2007

And where were you on September 11, 2001?

A watershed moment in American history, it is forever etched in our memories.

And everyone remembers what they were doing, what they saw, at that precise moment they heard America was under attack.

I was in the green room at the Today show that morning, in Rockefeller Center in New York, about eight minutes away from going on the air. It was a beautiful September morning. Twenty-twenty visibility. Inside the studio, Matt Lauer was interviewing an author about a recent Hollywood biography, when he stopped the question in mid-sentence and the screen was filled with a wide shot of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, already smoking at the top floors.

“It appears that a small plane has crashed into the World Trade Center,” he announced. I took one look at the size of the impact on the upper part of the building and raced downstairs to the control room. “That was no small plane,” I told the executive producer. “How do you know?” he asked. A small plane would never have left that big a hole …

As NBC News scrambled to cover the story, I stayed in the control room and started to work the phones, calling as many airline contacts I could find that morning. Just then, we all watched with horror as the live camera broadcast the second plane — a United 767 — smash into the South Tower.

But now, six years after the tragedy, a far more important question than where you were or what you did lingers … it’s what have we done to protect this country and its citizens from future terrorist attacks?

The immediate wake of 9/11 created one of the largest federal agencies — the Department of Homeland Security, and as part of that, the Transportation Security Administration. I will not argue whether the establishment of these agencies was well-intentioned. No one can argue against the need for great and effective security.

My concern is with the focus and implementation of that security. I’ve said it before and it bears repeating — effective security needs three essential ingredients: intelligence, intuition and common sense, and sadly, six years after the worst attack on America in its history, we’re still batting close to zero.

Management policies at the TSA don’t allow the hard working front-line people at airport security checkpoints to think. As a result, they are placed in the unenviable role of behaving like robotic morons. Think I’m exaggerating? Consider these facts: TSA personnel are still strip searching nuns looking for scissors and tweezers, but no one is inspecting the cargo that is being shipped in the very bellies of the passenger aircraft. Security officers working for U.S. airlines overseas are still asking the same three tired questions — each of which is answered with yes, yes, and no. (Have you packed the bags yourself? Have they been in your possession at all times? Has anyone given you anything to carry for them?).

Any graduate of a police academy or investigative reporter can tell you that if you want information, you never ask a question that can be answered with a yes or no. If I want to know if you killed someone, I would never ask you a straightforward “Did you kill him?” question. If you answer “No,” I have nowhere to go. However, if I ask you “Hey, what did you do with the gun?” and you answer it, then we have something to talk about. This is basic. And yet it isn’t being done.

The same is true of fitting the so-called terrorist profile. I continue to be taken out of line on almost every flight I take. Why? I never check bags (I FedEx them ahead of time), and I am usually flying on a one-way ticket on a reservation made within 24 hours. And that suddenly profiles me as a terrorist. It also describes thousands of high-frequency business travelers. This is effective profiling? Hardly.

So here we are six years after September 11th. We’ve created a huge security bureaucracy, but we’re fighting the last war, not anticipating the next one. Let us not forget that terrorism is not an ideology, but a methodology — and that those who use terrorism always seek the path of least resistance. Right now that means airline cargo and the U.S. mail. It also means our ports, where less than 8 percent of all containers entering this country are even given a cursory inspection. There are security loopholes out there large enough to drive a Humvee through — which brings me to the point of our bridges and tunnels.

Recent terror incidents in Madrid and London — where bombs were detonated by cell phones — should have taught us an important lesson in this country. Apparently not. We have the technology at our disposal to jam cell phone signals inside tunnels and across bridges — but no one is doing it. Can we live without a cell phone call in the four or five minutes it takes us to drive through a tunnel or cross a bridge? I think so.

Our security officers have the intelligence to ask people intuitive questions that can be truly effective, and yet they’re still on a crusade, confiscating moisturizer and body lotion. And in a recent bizarre display of absolutely no common sense whatsoever, the TSA is now allowing us to take cigarette lighters past security checkpoints.

Let us acknowledge this sad anniversary, and honor those who gave their lives by finally implementing intelligent, comprehensive security procedures that can actually save lives.

For more of Peter’s blogs, check out the “Travel Detective Files”.

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