Chairman Rockefeller's Remarks on The State of Aviation Security: Is Our Current System Capable of Meeting the Threat?

January 20, 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Christmas terror attack told us we need to further harden our defenses and evaluate if we are doing everything we can to meet an evolving Al Qaeda terrorist threat.

The threat to America is real and we have to get it absolutely right, 100 percent of the time.

A man with a bomb was able to board a plane headed for America - so it is obvious and clear our system failed.

I know that every day countless unsung, unnamed American heroes in our intelligence community and law enforcement are doing courageous work half a world away, to prevent attacks and save lives. Some, like the seven men and women of the CIA who were recently killed in eastern Afghanistan, do not make it home. 

So while we have a responsibility to be frank about where we have fallen short, we must also honor their service.

We can do that by building on the progress we have made since the 9/11 attacks, with an eye toward making smart and specific improvements that keep us safe. 

Nine years ago, our intelligence agencies did not share information largely because they could not: Their information systems were not interoperable.

And because they would not: Agencies too often preferred to “stovepipe” information rather than share it.

Since then, as Mr. Leiter will testify, we have made enormous strides. Today’s systems and practices are far superior than those that allowed 19 men to execute the global plan to commit the horrific attacks of 9/11.

And yet, just weeks ago our systems, STILL allowed a terrorist to board Flight 253 with sophisticated explosives. This was a grave and multi-layered failure.

The intelligence community did not piece together clues about this man’s connections to terrorism – clues that were available.

The State Department and the Department of Homeland Security allowed this man to board the airplane with a valid U.S. visa.

And the international airport screening we depend on did not detect that this man was carrying a potentially devastating explosive device.

We have a responsibility to be brutally honest about where we have fallen short. We have to do better. And that basic fact will drive much of this Committee’s work in the year ahead.

We have to do better at protecting our families, safeguarding our communities, and securing our nation. That is at the top of our agenda this year: bringing the attention, the resources, and the leadership needed to improve our citizen’s safety and security.

This Committee intends to continue asking the tough questions and shape the policies that guide transportation security in all its modes – we will seriously review our port security, chemical security, and cybersecurity. 

Today’s hearing on aviation security represents an opportunity to bring to the table key issues that demand our attention.

And I want to invite my colleagues to bring their new ideas, as we work together to develop concrete solutions that advance our security efforts on every front.

Some key solutions I believe we can and must seriously consider:

  • Requiring US-bound aircraft and international airports to meet more rigorous security requirements (and not letting our cumbersome international negotiating process slow us down).
  • Engaging a major new effort to develop and deploy advanced imaging technologies (AIT) – which means more money, more accuracy, and getting serious about stopping any programs that don’t work.
  • Improving and in some cases mandating better information sharing among TSA, intelligence agencies, and even commercial airlines. (We need to do more to establish the partnership between government and the private sector when it comes to security.)
  • Making the watch list more accurate on the one hand, and more dynamic, on the other – expanding the universe of people who receive secondary screening, re-evaluating our screening criteria, and educating the public about the process. (We need a partnership with the flying public, too.)
  • Requiring coordination between the valuable resources we have at our Embassies, especially our Regional Security Officers, and the TSA to identify threats emanating from overseas airports (believe it or not, this is not always happening today).

This is not an exhaustive list of solutions or proposals, but it is a place to start.

And all of this will require raising new revenues, but doing nothing is not an option. We must be clear and transparent with the American public that they will continue to see greater security efforts which may be inconvenient, but are necessary.

Finally, I hope that throughout the process we can put partisan politics aside.

When Erroll Southers withdrew his name for head of TSA today, our national security system lost a skilled law enforcement officer with needed expertise and leadership qualities because of political games – and that is a real shame.

I am confident that President Obama will quickly nominate a new candidate to run TSA. I am committed to putting another qualified person in this critical job and will hold Commerce Committee nominations hearings as soon as possible.

As the bipartisan leaders of the 9/11 Commission testifying here today have shown, our citizens’ safety and security is our most solemn responsibility. I urge my colleagues to more carefully focus on America’s security not partisanship. 

I look forward to our witnesses’ testimony as we work together to make our transportation system as safe and secure as possible.