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AMU Homeland Security Opinion

TSA Officials Down- Under Attack- Where’s the National Guard?

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Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security

Gerardo I. Hernandez is the first TSA officer to be killed in the line of duty. At least one other TSA official and four bystander were wounded and over 700 flights affected as the LAX airport shutdown last Friday, November 1.

Paul Ciancia, age 23, was the shooter. Carrying a Smith & Wesson .223 caliber M & P -15 semi-automatic rifle with five magazines [about 180 rounds] according to news sources. He specifically targeted TSA personnel in what appears to be an anti-government rage. The motives are still being investigated and center largely around an alleged hate/suicide note.

Ciancia made it well past the “security” gate and further inside terminal 3. He was finally shot by a police officer at the food court area after firing more rounds of the same terminal. He was taken to a nearby hospital on critical condition.

The worst part- this could have all been prevented. Security conscious professionals have warned for years that the screening area is one of the most vulnerable areas in an American airport. There are often no armed officers and certainly not at all screening areas; only TSA screeners.

What is more, the people are all crowded together. Why attack the plane when there are several planes of worth of people standing helplessly in line to be checked for weapons?

Another weak-point is the entrance with cars- no-body checks the cars- as they do in Israel, for example- which could be carrying a van full of explosives right up to the cement barriers, which will do nothing to protect the destruction of the entire terminal and everything to stop a crazy or drunk driver’s vehicle from ramming the door. Clearly there are better approaches but until someone does it once, it is hard somehow for Americans to do what is necessary in areas of defense.

A reactive approach is now reevaluating preventive measures discussed back to Secretary Michael Chertoff’s time at Homeland Security. And many suggested long before proposals that eliminate or cut short this type simple gun attack.

One of them is to have the necessary armed police officers posted in critical points at all times. Another is to arm TSA screeners. The second is a very bad idea, considering that TSA screeners are not the type to engage in combat; especially with potentially highly trained violent extremists, let alone mere amateurs like Ciencia. For that matter, normal local police officers too, would fall into the category of unequipped and unprepared in many cases that are likely to come about in the future under present conditions.

The people are uneducated too. What should they do if they here gun shots or an explosion? They are well trained to not leave unattended bags by now, but it might be wise to educate them a little bit further over the security airwaves. A stampeded of panic stricken people can also result in multiple injuries and deaths.

This was an airport that had an extensive review of its security by Israeli experts under the current Mayor Antonio Ramón Villar, Jr. And still: Where was the National Guard? They could have been on scene and at the screening location, armed with small arms; prepared as volunteers and or veterans of foreign military operations. They could have been on guard and roving patrols. Special units could work with the TSA and Coast Guard to ensure tighter port and critical border security.

Instead the response was a police officer that shot him far too late in an area well behind what is considered a secure-zone. The US still has a lot to learn from other states.

In the case of airport security, many countries do not fool around. The US still lacks a strong presence of highly trained counter terrorists at these junctures. For the largest airports in the nation, this is not too much to ask. The Italians have the Carabineri. The French have the Vigipirate; the Israelis use the IDF. For those who have traveled to any of those states and paid attention to their well armged-guards, you realize how much more secure they are in comparison to Los Angeles or even Dulles airport security. Granted, Israel has less than a half dozen international airport to secure, but with more terrorist threats than any in the world, they do a near perfect job at repelling them. They would not have ever had the incident of a Paul Ciancia.

The biggest reason is that unlike other states under high threat of attack, US airport foolishly chooses to use military personnel to defend ports and reinforce. The Posse Comitatus Act allows the US to use the military for police support roles but not policing powers or the enforcing of laws. It would be possible, especially at the state levels, where governor reinforced the harbors and the airports with the highly trained National Guard units, armed with sub-machine guns and side arms, similar to the approach carried out in the countries mentioned above. They would not have arrest or enforcement powers but they would be on scene and ready to respond and protect the people and infrastructure of America’s ports. They could subdue an attacker as well and hand them over to the police to be arrested. This is in-line with the support operations and special cases where military assistance is required for counter narcotics and counter terrorism.

An increase police and military cooperation, I find, is better than the alternative of militarizing civilian police roles or arming security types like TSA officials who lack the skills, the mission and the mindset for such a task. The policing powers need extra assistance in certain areas- this is one of them. They do not need to become the internal department of defense; they simply need help from already capable counter-terrorist military units.

The next best thing would be the S.W.A.T. that specifically trains and specializes in airport rapid response. Even a combination of the police officers, S.W.A.T. and the National Guard through a joint task force which might also include TSA investigators and agents. There are plenty of these ideas but it is always amazing to see them solve the problem via simulation, get turned down and then experience an avoidable loss.

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