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March 14, 2013

If you give a terrorist an inch, he will take a mile . . . and many lives

by: Mary F. Schiavo

I performed numerous aviation security investigations when I served as Inspector General of the U.S. DOT, and was called, after the 9/11 attacks, to testify on aviation security before the 9/11 Commission. Motley Rice attorneys also committed a decade (2001-2011) and approximately $25 million to the investigation and litigation involving how 9/11 happened. We represented more than 100 family members of passengers, flight attendants and pilots killed on the four planes used in the attacks; took hundreds of depositions, including of all the screeners who worked on that day (but were not questioned by the FBI); and reviewed millions of pages of documents. An alarming, but surprisingly simple, picture emerged of what happened.

On 9/11, aviation security was looking for bombs. They had tunnel vision. After PanAm 103, TWA 800 (not a bomb, but the FBI thought it was for two years), the bombing of the World Trade Center via a van in the parking garage and the Atlanta Olympics bombings, aviation security suffered from tunnel vision—all anyone was focused on was bombs—except for the hijackers. They knew the screeners were primarily looking for bombs and not weapons such as knives and box cutters.

The hijackers attacked after the rules were relaxed and knives of 3.5 inches or less were allowed on planes. The rule was four inches, but screeners testified that they used their identification badges to measure, during the instances when they actually measured, which were only about 3.5 inches. They also had to make a decision about whether blades they inspected were “menacing.” They took that to mean serrated. The hijackers, knowing that airport security was looking for bombs and that knives weren’t given any scrutiny, watched the airports for many months and made several trial runs through airport security. Mohammed Atta was actually caught watching security in Boston on May 11, 2001, but he was released.

On 9/11, it was already the law that cockpit doors had to be locked and secure during taxi and flight. This was not a new law that was implemented following 9/11. After 9/11, doors and locks were made stronger, but there is no evidence that the hijackers broke through the doors or locks on the hijacked planes. What they did do was stab flight attendants and allegedly open the doors with the flight attendants’ keys or the pilots let them in when the flight attendants asked. We don’t know for certain because only one cockpit voice recording survived the intense fires. On that cockpit voice recording, there were no sounds of a door being broken—just the sounds of a door being opened. On every 9/11 plane, a flight attendant was stabbed and/or passengers were stabbed, most likely both.

The hijackers purchased the following knives:

  • Victornox (Swiss Army) Camper (allowed under the new TSA carry-on knife policy)
  • Victornox (Swiss Army) Soldier (under four inches and even under 3.5 inches, but over 2.36 inches, so allowed on 9/11 but still not allowed under the new policy)
  • Viper clip hanger (depends on size of blade but could be allowed under the new policy)
  • Stanley 2 piece snap knife set (considered a box cutter so not allowed on 9/11 and not allowed under the new policy)
  • Leatherman multipurpose tool (could be allowed under the new policy depending on the size of the blade)

Because hijacker Mohammed Atta’s luggage misconnected, we know exactly his tools of choice. That information was confirmed in his luggage: a folding pocket knife and cayenne red pepper spray.

A Leatherman multipurpose tool was found at the Flight 93 crash site. They come in different sizes but will be allowed under the new policy when the blade is less than 2.36 inches.

On 9/11, instead of examining knives and measuring which ones’ blades were 3.5 inches or less, the screeners did not find or measure any. No knives—of either the hijackers (all 19 got through and none of their knives were inspected) or the other passengers—were taken out of carry-ons and examined or measured. Because of long security lines, the screeners were likely pressured to hurry. Therefore, they did not examine or measure knives—that would have taken too much time and caused even more delays. The knives and box cutters (and pepper spray) simply passed uninspected through security.

The change in TSA policy again allowing knives will put us exactly where we were back on 9/11—looking for bombs, ignoring knives, alleging screeners are going to make miniscule measurements (who has a 2.36 inch ruler?) and specifically allowing one of the knives we know was bought by hijacker Atta. 

The facts are starkly contrary to the TSA assumptions. Since 1930, there have been almost 1000 hijackings. The weapon of choice for hijackers has been a small knife, under four inches and, on 9/11, under 3.5 inches. There have been less than 50 bombings. More people have been killed by hijackers with knives than by aircraft bombings.

Besides – there are several thousand instances of air rage each year. Usually alcohol and drugs are involved (or mental illness). Why put any knives on a plane? It doesn’t have to be a hijack situation for a knifing to occur. Flight attendants have plastic zip ties to restrain unruly passengers. With a knife, a drunk or deranged can cut right through a zip tie and hurt passengers and flight attendants.  As a result, flight attendants will now need to be given metal handcuffs and keys.

Worse, people like me who intend to go down fighting are going to start carrying knives just to even up the fights. With booze, drunks and knives on planes, why go to a bar fight unarmed? I’m packing a knife, too.

Now, after threatening delays because of the Sequester, the TSA is going to spend countless hours measuring knives with a 2.36 inch ruler. By the way, who sells 2.36 inch rulers? Staples? No. A government contract will be required to make the new ruler. Remember the $800 toilet seat? We’re going to have $500 rulers. Additionally, the Sequester cut $49 million from the Air Marshals’ sequestrable budget of $972 million. That means about 100 fewer air marshals (each one costs about half a million with benefits, training, travel and pay).

This new policy is so stupid that it almost makes you think it is a deliberate plot to get rid of the TSA. This insane decision comes on the heels of the TSA ordering $50 million in new uniforms for new hires while under a sequester order and hiring freeze. Who at the TSA has a financial interest in a private screening company? Congress is going to be talking privatization again, and then we really will be back to exactly where we were on 9/11. The new policy is so time consuming that a skeptic might think that this is the delay the Department of Homeland Security threatened that Sequester would cause and which has, thus far, not materialized because of a five percent budget cut.

The police do not allow any knives in any holding cell in America. None. No exception. The reason is simple—the people are all different. Some are drunk, some are mentally ill and some are hardened criminals. Isn’t a plane really like a holding cell? We have no idea who is sitting next to us. There are documented cases of passengers going crazy and killing fellow passengers—usually under the influence of drugs, alcohol or mental illness—or all three.

The bottom line is that the TSA is going to leave aviation security hanging by less than an inch—from 3.5 inch knives used by the hijackers to 2.36 knives now allowed. Have we forgotten history so soon? If you give a terrorist an inch, he’ll take a mile and many lives. Passengers’ and flight attendants’ lives should not depend on a screener with a 2.36 inch ruler when we know almost three thousand people were killed by 3.5 inch knives.