January 8, 2003 11:26 Flight Manual Flap Masks Real Security ConcernsBy Ralph W. OmholtThe mystery over the FBI's sudden interest in my unclassified aircraft flight manual remains - well, a mystery. As I noted in an article three weeks ago ("Buy a Flight Manual, Get a Grand Jury Subpoena," DefenseWatch, Dec. 18, 2002), my encounter with the U.S. national security apparatus began several months ago when I successfully bid on an eBay item advertising a CD-ROM Boeing 737 ground-school course. I purchased the disc, only to have the previous owner call me back in a panic saying that the federal government was investigating, and begging me to return the item. I did so, but that was not the end of the story.On the evening of Dec. 15, my girlfriend responded to the doorbell and I found a very pleasant FBI agent requesting an audience with me. I greeted him with a smile, announcing that I had been expecting him.It seems that the investigation was continuing: Even though I had given the CD back to the seller, the FBI agent said he wanted all records I had pertaining to the matter - and any copies I might have made. He went straight to the point: While copyright issues were involved (originating from Boeing), the FBI's core concern was the "national security" implications over the contents of the CD. Translation: Because the 9/11 hijackers had trained at American flight schools, everything pertaining to the education and certification of civil aviation pilots in the United States - including generic flight manuals - seems to have a national security value up there with nuclear weapon blueprints.The interview didn't last long, and in the end I was a little surprised that the FBI agent didn't confiscate my other aircraft manuals while he was at it. As a career airline captain, I found this entire episode to be absurd. There are over 700,000 commercial airline and private pilots in the United States, and all of them collect aircraft systems manuals to carry out their ongoing refresher training efforts. While the purported CD copyright issue may have played a minor role, it is obvious to me that security concerns were driving the FBI and its fresh-faced agent who knocked on my door that night.The agent was friendly and thorough in his focus. He began by handing me the anticipated subpoena. All records and any copies were to be produced; no copies of the disk were allowed to be retained by myself - or anyone. The interview lasted approximately 45 minutes. I was careful to ascertain his concerns, as well as advise him that in my judgment there were far more serious security concerns than just the computer system. The agent listened, but gave no response to the new information. The conversation ended with an advisory from the agent that my appearance at the grand jury would not be required, so long as I furnished all the information requested. I was pleased, but also surprised that he didn't insist on a personal inspection of my files and paperwork. Purely by accident, I'd saved an HTML copy of the eBay advertisement, which specifically stated that the manual was "similar to" that of the actual manufacturer's manual. Within an hour of the agent's departure, I'd located, printed and faxed the requested information to the agent's office. I left a voice-mail, requesting phone verification that he had received the materials.The grand jury was scheduled for Dec. 18, 2002. To be very certain, I called the U.S. District Court officials the day before to confirm that my appearance was not actually needed - it wasn't, just the records.The grand jury outcome is not yet complete, as nearly as I've been able to discover. By definition, the testimony and other related information will remain secret until either an indictment is handed down or the case is abandoned. This is a classic case of, "No news is good news," and I sincerely hope that the case dies.But the wider issue - of public access to the wide array of flight instruction materials - remains unchanged and unresolvable.Many people (but not the U.S. government, it seems) are aware that there is a global "flight simulator cult," whose members offer superior information that has superior instructional ability to the manuals provided by aircraft manufacturers - and the airlines. The easy-to-obtain Microsoft "Flight Simulator" program is a better teaching aide than the now-confiscated CD manual I purchased through eBay. One online author sells a specialized manual, breaking down the operation of the "Flight Management Computer System" (FMCS) into easy-to-understand language. I would not be surprised to learn that he, too, got a surprise visit from the FBI. And as I noted in my earlier article, even if somehow the U.S. government could carry out the impossible task of removing all flight manual information from the domestic market, what can it do about overseas websites where the same material is available? The FBI is chasing an illusion.Now for the reality. I respectfully submit that the actual airline security risk doesn't concern just the software flight manuals. Airport security basically operates at three tiers -intelligence, screening and on-board measures. While there is a limit as to how much threat containment is achievable, there are a number of highly effective security measures available for these three areas that the government and airline industry could rapidly implement - but as yet have not. Intelligence is far too complex and sensitive to discuss in detail in this forum, but it is not inappropriate to note a spate of news reports since late 2001 where airlines and pilots have complained that the U.S. government had failed to pass on information pertaining to potential hijacking threats such as shoe bombs.Despite the federalization of the airport screeners, the screening process itself remains a joke - and the situation is getting worse. Screeners are harassing legitimate passengers unreasonably, often humiliating innocent people beyond any standard which can be considered reasonable. Recently, a pregnant passenger complained to her husband that her breasts had been "searched" by the screeners. Before it was over, the husband was forced to cop a plea to a misdemeanor to avoid felony charges. His crime - demanding accountability for what otherwise constituted a sexual assault on his wife - in the name of "security."Officials can arbitrarily add a person's name to a "no airport access" list possibly without his or her knowledge or consent. The rules seem to be made up on the fly. The airlines won't sell such individuals a ticket, and have the power to effect their arrest if found at the ticket counter. Meanwhile, airport security officials in other cases have treated individuals effecting actual security breaches with kid gloves. There have been any number of cases where an individual accidentally brought a weapon - including pistols - on board aircraft, going un-prosecuted.The security screening process is supposed to be an "echelon" (many-layered) tactic. As it stands, anyone who slips past the primary point has a high probability of getting onboard the aircraft. If officials discover a screening error often the only recourse is for them to evacuate the entire the terminal.Properly done, there should be at least two delay points - with recording security cameras - in order to quickly filter anyone who slips through the primary screening. The airlines lose millions of dollars due to just this failure alone. The echelon measure is affordable.As the Israelis have proved with their airlines, cockpit access should be a double-door system. While individual airlines are considering such measures, there is no FAA mandate. (Given the FAA record, that's obviously no accident.)Even if the cockpit is secured, the modern airliner ventilation system leaves open the possibility of a successful attack using chemical agents. Here again, neither the government nor airline industry is taking steps to remove a potential threat existing on every commercial airliner. (A hint from a pilot: Merely pulling and "collaring" two specific circuit breakers would eliminate that threat. It is just that simple.)The issue comes down to whether the federal government and the airline industry are genuinely serious about airline security. It's not just the FBI agents rummaging though my checkbook that worries me - it's the absence of any realistic security initiatives from the check-in counter to the cockpit door that have me genuinely worried. I hold to the opinion that another 9/11 terrorist operation would be far easier today than it was in 2001. My conviction is that vigilante passengers are the only reliable security against another 9/11. That leaves the air freight operation to worry about.One correction to my earlier article: I mistakenly cited the authority of section 501(d) of the "USA Patriot Act" for dictating the secrecy of grand jury subpoenas. The citation should have been section 501(d) of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," changed by section 215 of the "USA Patriot Act."Ralph Omholt is a Contributing Editor of DefenseWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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