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Lessons of 9/11: The Travel Detective Talks Travel Safety and Security with Colonel Jack Jacobs

Locations in this article:  Los Angeles, CA

American flagRecently, Peter chatted with Colonel Jack Jacobs, a retired Colonel in the United States Army and military analyst for MSNBC, about what we’ve learned about travel safety and security since the events of September 11, 2001.

Peter Greenberg: We’ve had the opportunity for hindsight, and hopefully some foresight as well. In eight years—and I’m just talking about airport and airline security— what have we learned and have we implemented those lessons?

Colonel Jack Jacobs: We’re taking a lot of precautions in a way that permits some people to say we closed the barn door after the horses escaped. But there is very little doubt that many of the ways that people could make our lives difficult have been eliminated. It’s a lot less convenient, of course.

Colonel Jack JacobsI remember arguments I’ve had with TSA people about the size about my toothpaste tube: I argued strenuously that in order to get the small toothpaste tube down to the required 3 ounces, we should just squeeze the other 1.5 ounces out of it. They didn’t laugh at the at that very much because they’re not very pleasant people. Nevertheless, they’re charged with the responsibility that at least some of the superficial things that could bring airplanes down are eliminated. So we’ve learned a lot about the little ways terrorists can make our lives unpleasant, but we haven’t learned a lot about the big ways. Trying to stay one step ahead of these guys is a very difficult job indeed.

PG: Let’s focus on the little things. I was flying in Canada recently, and they have just relaxed the rules: anyone flying within Canada or flying from Canada overseas—with one exception—no longer has to take their shoes off when going through security. The one exception is any flight going into the United States. When are we going to have a uniform application of security?

JJ: We don’t even have uniform application of security inside the United States. We need an international compact if you want to make everything equivalent, but you’re not going to have that anytime soon. Part of the problem is that each venue thinks that its risk is different. For example, the risk in Israel is perceived—within Israel—as being far more significant than the risk of the United States inside the United States. And properly so.

As a result, the ways in which the Israelis protect against potential terrorists acts against travelers is very different than in the United States. They’re much more vigilant, and to be quite honest, they’re much better at it, and less intrusive in many respects than we are in the United States. We tend to focus on the trivialities and the Israelis do not.

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Flag of IsraelPG: Like you, I’ve been back and forth to Israel many times, and the one thing I’ve noticed—even in the U.S. with gate agents on El Al flights—is that their management allows their security agents to ask intelligent questions–questions that could not be answered with a “yes” or “no,” like “Did you pack the bag yourself?” Any terrorist can answer that question. They are allowed to think on their feet, to use their own common sense and discretion. Yes, some might call that profiling—but common sense is one form of profiling.

JJ: And it’s worked dramatically well. The difference is their screening professionals are highly trained, and ours are just rent-a-cops. I’m not saying anything that’s not true. They’re basically the same people as before but now they have uniforms and benefits, and they are merely there to go through a checklist. I can tell you all kinds of outrageous stories about people who are really no threat whatsoever, which simple profiling could have eliminated. The Israelis do that extremely well. There has not been a terrorist incident in recent memory on an Israeli carrier, and for very good reason—their screeners are very, very highly trained.

Find out: Will “Improved” TSA Watchlist Make Us Safer?  And learn more here: Eight Years After 9/11 Is Travel Any Safer?

PG: Let me give you an example: I have a friend who is a pilot for Continental Airlines. And this didn’t happen to her once, but it happened four or five times over the course of five months. She was going through security as all of us do, and the TSA agent confiscated her nail clippers saying they were a dangerous item. She looked at him and said, “Where do you think I’m going after I leave this security area? I’m going to be a commander of an airplane. I think I can do a whole lot more damage sitting in the left seat than these nail clippers can.”

JJ: I’ve got one better than that. A friend of mine is a pilot for Delta [who also had his nail clippers confiscated]. He said, “I’m the pilot,” and they said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s on our list and we have no discretion.” He said the following, “If you look at my book, I’ve got to check out the aircraft before we take off. I’m flying a 757. If you look at the last page, it tells me as my last requirement before I close up the aircraft, I have to turn around and make sure the fire axe is on the bulkhead. I’ve got an axe. What do I need a pair of nail clippers for?” They didn’t laugh at that either.

Don’t miss another no-holds-barred interview with Colonel Jack Jacobs on the Pirates of the Indian Ocean.

PG: Let’s go to another area of security: cargo. I was yelling and screaming about this, as were many members of Congress—while they were looking for those nail clippers, they weren’t inspecting the cargo flying in the very belly of the aircraft that I’m sitting on as a passenger.

Air Cargo TransportA bill was passed in August 2007 giving the TSA three years to screen 100 percent of all cargo on commercial passenger jets.  It was supposed to be phased into 50 percent [earlier this year], and the Government Accountability Office report came in and said, “Not even close.”

JJ: That’s closely related to another problem, which is our difficult with cargo shipments into major ports. The last figure I saw is that we screen some indeterminate number, between 5 and 7 percent of all incoming cargo. That’s not very adequate, is it? And the ports are loaded with containers; anything is possible when countries ship stuff in, and we have very little of that stuff that’s actually being screened. We are bending over picking up the pennies, while the dollar bills that are floating overhead.

PG: The good news is, we’ve gone eight years without any repetition of 9/11 in this country. Does that mean we’re doing it right?

JJ: We’re doing some things right. Although we’re making it very inconvenient for individuals to travel, we’re spending a great deal of time and effort on intelligence. A lot of intelligence has been very productive, particularly in our cooperation with foreign intelligence in Europe and the Middle East.

Find out more on Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio, where Peter talked travel safety and security with Joe Brancatelli, uncovered the secrets behind hotel deals with Jane Engle of the Los Angeles Times, and much, much more travel news you can use.