The USA has raised its threat advisory level in response to intelligence. Now it has to keep allies and its own security services on its side

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced on 21 December that it was raising the threat advisory level from Code Yellow to Code Orange because incoming intelligence indicated a terrorist intention to attack the USA.

But a permanently high security-alertness state becomes devalued if it becomes the norm. Although security systems use high technology, they still depend on human vigilance, so any loss of belief in the system results in a lowering of vigilance. The only justification for keeping a security state high is if the system can bear out intelligence by showing results. These can come in the form of would-be terrorists or hijackers captured or weapons detected at security checkpoints. But the most difficult result to demonstrate is successful deterrence, because the only way it can normally be proven is by revealing intelligence information, which jeopardises sources. Meanwhile at the frontline, if nothing ever happens, the ordinary security operative believes there is no threat and vigilance naturally drops. And DHS secretary Tom Ridge said, when he raised the threat advisory level, that this was a reaction to "the possibility of attacks on the homeland around the holiday season and beyond". He could not afford to say how long "beyond" would be, even if he knew.

All the hyped press interest in security arrangements over the "holiday season" was driven partly by the fact that there is always a dearth of news around this time, but although Ridge had given a generalised warning about "attacks against the homeland", nearly all the concentration was on aviation security. Little new had been announced. Sky marshals are not a new invention. Australia, Canada and Germany had a programme for putting security forces on aircraft before the US sky marshal programme was launched, and the UK announced in December 2002 that it already had trained police on permanent standby to perform that duty.

The only real news following from the DHS announcement was the upping of the alert state, and the request - for the first time - by the USA to other nations to put armed sky marshals on specific flights to the USA that are identified by intelligence sources as being under particular threat. This request was universally met by the other nations concerned telling the USA that it would have to convince them that the threat was real and specific before they would adopt measures they might not normally use. That sounds fair enough. If it wants allies in a fight against terrorism, the USA has to invest trust in them or risk causing alienation. The USA's ultimate weapon if it does not get co-operation is, of course, to ban incoming flights by a particular airline or from a particular country, but that does not win allies.

There is a cultural problem in requesting the use of guns on foreign aircraft, as in everything the USA touches outside its own homeland. Americans have the right to bear arms enshrined in their constitution, and even if they do not like guns they are accustomed to seeing them used in law enforcement. The UK's main pilot union speaks for almost all non-US pilots in not wanting guns on board aircraft, even in the hands of security personnel, whereas when polled on the subject US pilots voted 75% in favour of being armed themselves in addition to having armed sky marshals on board.

Both pilot groups' positions exemplify different versions of a "worst case scenario", which can be reached by following different directions in a "what if" reasoning process. The US pilots argue "what if" a group of well-organised terrorists got firearms on an aircraft and managed to storm the reinforced cockpit during meal service to the crew. At least the pilots would be able to kill them. That assumes that terrorist firearms would get through security, that storming the cockpit would work, and that the pilots would win the cockpit shoot-out. The non-US pilots argue "what if" a group of well-organised but unarmed terrorists got on board without any security hitches by obeying the security rules, knowing they would have access to a firearm if they could identify the sky marshal. The trouble with "what if" games is that neither side will ever convince the other.

If the USA is to get the world on its side in its fight against fundamentalist terrorism, it is not enough to point out the bad guy and lead the fight against him, because no-one will follow unless they are won over by being trusted. Meanwhile, if the USA is to keep its own security workforce effective it must not maintain high levels of security vigilance any longer than they are genuinely warranted.

Source: Flight International