Friday, January 27, 2012


“The Contract of Command” 
The last voyage of the Costa Concordia and “The Wrong Stuff”

No man or woman ever knows how they will react when their life is in danger. I hope, and I’m sure we all hope we would react in a such a way as to earn self-respect, if not honor—but we just don’t know. However, a decision to accept a position as a ship captain, airline pilot, fireman, policeman, Coast Guardsman; any position where danger is possible and the job gives you responsibility for the lives of others, is in effect a contract. A contract in which the implicit agreement is that the lives of others come before your own. It is a guarantee that you will do as promised. You are, as the old saying goes, acknowledging that  “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.” So if it appears that anybody is being criticized in this piece for cowardice, it is not criticism of character or a human failing common to many, the criticism is aimed at a person who apparently defaulted on a contract; the contract of command.

 fence is never needed until something pushes against it. Similarly, courage can never be measured until fear is present. One can test a fence by simply pushing on it, but gauging a man’s courage is difficult absent imminent danger.

Fight or flight. At one time or another, nearly everyone wonders how they would react if their life was on the line and they had a choice of acting or running. Those who rise to the occasion are said to have “the right stuff.” There is no polite phrase for those who fail in those situations.  

Captain “Sully” Sullenberger answered all his own questions on January 15, 2009. His decisiveness, skill, and calmness are now legend. Sully’s friends describe him as “shy and reticent,” but beneath that shyness lay the makings of a hero. Finding himself in an engineless, 75 ton flying fuel tank over Manhattan with the lives of 148 people on his shoulders, Sullenberger knew that he had just one or two chances in a thousand to survive. Over the shouting of the electronic voice of the plane, “pull up pull up pull up pull up…..” the questions from air traffic control, and the attempts to restart the engines, he thought quickly, decided on the only realistic option, and flawlessly ditched the airliner in the Hudson River next to Manhattan.  Listening to his confident, decisive communications on the radio is nothing if not inspiring, if only for knowing what “the right stuff” sounds like.

Two days short of three years later, on January 13, 2012, Francesco Schettino, captain of the luxury Costa (Carnival subsidiary) Cruise liner “Costa Concordia” also answered his own questions and provided the world an example of what “the wrong stuff” sounds like, via his radio communications with the Livorno Port Authority.

Somehow, a cruise liner in good weather ran aground. It apparently did so during a “Salute” to the island of Giglio. A ship’s ‘salute’ is a close sail-by of land to generate excitement and is the nautical equivalent of the aviation “buzz-job,” itself one of the leading causes of fatal aircraft crashes. This ‘salute’ was allegedly intended to raise the visibility of the cruise line. It worked. Costa Cruise line rules allegedly prohibit the ship from coming within a half mile of land while underway. Schettino claimed to be no nearer to land than .29 miles. The charted rocks he hit, however, were 450 feet off shore. It is said that he might have been distracted by a beautiful 25 year old blonde who was somehow a guest on the bridge after witnesses say she and Captain Schettino split a carafe of wine. But the even more troubling issue than how it happened, is what occurred after the ship ran aground. The commander of the Livorno Port Authority is Gregorio De Falco, and De Falco had by Italian law, control of the scene. He contacted Schettino by radio after being told that the captain of the Costa Concordia had abandoned ship with passengers aboard.

Gregorio De Falco: "Hello. Hello."
Francesco Schettino: "Good evening, captain."
De Falco: "Hello, I'm de Falco, from Livorno. I am speaking with the commander?"
Schettino: "I'm Commander Schettino."
De Falco: "Listen Schettino, there are people trapped aboard, you go with your lifeboat under the prow of the ship on the port side and you go aboard the ship using the rope ladder. You go aboard and you tell me how many people there are. Is it clear? I'm recording this conversation, Commander Schettino."
“I’m recording this conversation, Commander Schettino.” De Falco knew the gravity of the situation and he knew what he was saying. He was obviously stunned that the captain of a foundering ship had fled, leaving his crew and passengers behind. I must admit that I too am stunned, as is the world, likely. De Falco felt that it was necessary to threaten the captain with exposure of his cowardice if he would not return to the ship.
One cannot help but compare this to Sullenberger’s demeanor as his plane plummeted at over 200 miles per hour toward downtown Manhattan. Sullenberger’s words in the cockpit and on the radio were strong, decisive and inspiring. In contrast, Captain Schettino was speaking with such diffidence that De Falco had difficulty understanding him.

Schettino: "So, I'll tell you something..."
De Falco: "Speak louder."
Schettino: "Now, I'm in front of..."
De Falco: "Commander, speak louder, take the microphone and speak loud. Is that clear?"
Schettino: "Commander, right now the ship is skewed. [listing to starboard]"

De Falco: "Understood. Listen,…….. you go aboard and you tell me the number of people and what they have on board. Is that clear? You tell me whether there are children, women or people needing assistance. And you tell me the number of each of these categories. Is that clear? Schettino, maybe you saved yourself from the sea, but I'll make you pay for sure. Go aboard, (expletive)!"
But even then, Schettino argued that his presence was not needed aboard.
Schettino: "Commander, please?"
De Falco: "Please, now you go aboard!"
Schettino: "I am on the life boat, under the ship, I haven't gone anywhere, I'm here."
De Falco: "What are you doing, commander?"
Schettino: "I'm here to coordinate rescues."
De Falco: "What are you coordinating there? Go on board and co-ordinate rescues from on board! Do you refuse?"
Schettino: "I'm not going because there is another lifeboat stopped there."
De Falco: "Go aboard: it's an order*. You have no evaluation to make, you declared abandon ship, now I give orders: go aboard. Is it clear?"
(* Once a captain has abandoned his ship, he no longer commands it, it is under the control of nautical search and rescue command.)
Schettino: "Commander I'm going aboard."
De Falco: "Call me from aboard, my rescuer is there at the prow of the ship. There are already dead bodies, Schettino."
Schettino: "How many dead bodies?"
De Falco: "I do not know. One for sure. You have to tell me how many!"
Schettino: "Do you realize that it's dark here and we can't see a thing?"
De Falco: "And what, do you want to go home, Schettino? It's dark, so you want to go home...? Go on the prow of the ship, using the rope ladder and tell me what can be done, how many people there are and what are their needs. Do it now."
Schettino: "Here there is also the vice commander. I'm together with him."
De Falco: "Then go aboard together. Together. What's his name?"
Schettino: "Dimitri."
De Falco: "Dimitri what? You and your vice go aboard. Now, is it clear?"
Schettino: "Commander, I want to go aboard, but here there is the other lifeboat, there are other rescuers who stopped. Now I called other rescuers."
De Falco: "You've been telling me this for one hour. Go aboard. Go aboard. And you tell me right away how many people there are."
Schettino: "Ok commander."
De Falco: "Go, quickly."

Just because a man has the coordination and the skill to handle a ship doesn’t mean he has what it takes to be a captain, especially when lives are at stake. Skill at navigating a ship can no more guarantee suitability as a captain any more than the fact that a male can produce sperm guarantees that he would be an adequate father.

Not only did Schettino fail, but it appears that his flight led some of the crew to abandon the passengers with him. Undoubtedly, there were brave crew who stayed and may have even paid with their lives, but they did this in spite of their captain. But make no mistake, Schettino’s acts were not the first in the tragic string of events. Nor was hitting the rocks. It was that he had been given command in the first place.

In the cases I worked in the FBI, particularly those perpetrated by the most violent, evil men, there had been a trail of acts, behaviors and episodes where the person’s personality was tipped-off. And in each of the cases, innocent people lay dead because the responsible people had shirked their duties. Schettino was responsible for the safety of thousands of people. With apparent failure of courage this blatant, could it be possible that there were no indications of Schettino’s inability to handle fear prior to this crisis?

Carnival has a responsibility to determine the suitability of a man or woman to command. There is no excuse anymore in today’s world. There are ways to weed out those who cannot ‘cut it.’ Even more traditional methods could have determined his fitness for duty. Marine Boot Camp, as horrible and stressful as it has been described, is not that way as some kind of sick initiation, it is to weed out those who cannot function under extreme duress or fear. Drill Instructors and the fear they instill are two of the main reasons that cowardice under fire is not something that people think of when they hear the words “United States Marines.” In a perfect world, Schettino would not have been given command, and he would have been spared what must be the worst experience of his life. He is not evil, he was just incapable of what was asked of him. And somebody in authority likely knew that. They were simply betting on the odds that his courage would never have to be tested.

Fortunately, Costa Cruise lines has now realized the magnitude of the tragedy and has made quick, astute moves to prove to the passengers and the world that they understand the gravity of the situation: They have offered the surviving passengers (and I’m not making this up) a 30% discount on a future Costa cruise. If that doesn’t restore your faith, I don’t know what will.

De Falco’s soon to be famous statement to the fleeing captain; “Schettino, maybe you saved yourself from the sea, but I'll make you pay for sure,” ended with the Italian phrase, “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” “Go on board, ‘cazzo’!” Cazzo is Italian profane slang for male genitalia. De Falco had lost all respect for a Schettino and was goading him to “man up.” Interestingly, there are already T-shirts with the phrase, “Vada a bordo, cazzo!” being made. Possibly it will enter the lexicon as a phrase intended to shame cowards into meeting their duties. Finally and pitifully, Schettino later explained his departure from the ship by saying that he had “tripped into a lifeboat,” a statement which only exposes the depth of his deficiency as a captain.

But to be fair, Sullenberger is not perfect either. After he skillfully ditched his A320 in the Hudson river, he deviated from the aircraft checklist and did not comply with what a captain should do. The checklist told him to don a life preserver, open the cockpit window and evacuate the aircraft. 

Instead, Sullenberger left the cockpit but not the aircraft. He left the cockpit through the interior door, going into the sinking rear cabin of the plane to ensure that everyone was out. Twice. When the last crewmember besides the captain boarded a raft, the airplane was halfway under water. Sullenberger, however, had one more thing to do. He went forward one last time to retrieve the aircraft’s logbooks to aid in the investigation of the crash before he departed—the last to leave the ship. The right stuff.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

TSA: Fail

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed to ensure America’s freedom to travel.  Instead, they have made air travel the most difficult means of mass transit in the United States, at the same time failing to make air travel any more secure.

TSA has never, (and I invite them to prove me wrong), foiled a terrorist plot or stopped an attack on an airliner. Ever. They crow about weapons found and insinuate that this means they stopped terrorism.  They claim that they can’t comment due to “national security” implications. In fact, if they had foiled a plot, criminal charges would have to be filed. Ever hear of terrorism charges being filed because of something found during a TSA screening? No, because it’s never happened. Trust me, if TSA had ever foiled a terrorist plot, they would buy full-page ads in every newspaper in the United States to prove their importance and increase their budget.

I have a unique position from which to make these statements. For 25 years, as many of readers know, I was an FBI Special Agent, and for many of those years, I was a counter-terrorism specialist. I ran the Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) Al Qaeda squad. I ran the JTTF’s Extra-territorial squad, which responded to terrorism against the United States or its interests throughout the world. I have investigated Al Qaeda cell operations in the United States, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, just to name a few. The FBI and the CIA provides the lion’s share of actionable intelligence on threats to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (the mother organization of TSA), so that they can tailor security screening to the actual threat.

I am, as I have said before, a political conservative, a law and order kind of guy and I get misty when the national anthem is played at a football game and jets fly over in salute.  If anything, I am pre-disposed to support the United States government.

I have been a pilot for more than 35 years. In the early years of my career, I flew aircraft for the FBI and I amassed 6,500 hours of flight time. I worked my way through college with United Airlines and was cockpit qualified to move the airliners around the ramp, fuel them and service them. I know aircraft.  My father, a former FBI Agent, worked for United from the time I was 12. We used our flight benefits to travel more than anybody I know, taking round-the-world vacations nearly every year and jumping airliners like hobos jump freight trains. During my FBI counter-terrorism years, I traveled 100,000 to 200,000 miles per year. I am intimately familiar with airline travel.

My father's position at United Airlines was Manager of Security. He had this job in the 70’s when airline security was in its infancy and he helped pioneered security procedures including the first magnetometers. He has written two textbooks on airport, aircraft, and airline security, and sat on FAA sponsored committees on airline security.

As a SWAT Agent, I was fully trained to interdict hijackings. I have trained countless hours on actual airliners, learned to shoot surgically inside the airliner “tube,” silently approach the aircraft and breach exterior doors quickly. I was also trained to shoot from airline seats in case I was aboard a hijacked flight, and for 25 years I traveled armed on airliners, meeting with Air Marshals prior to each flight.

I have dealt with TSA since its inception and FAA security prior to that. I have witnessed TSA operate since they became a separate organization in 2002 and seen their reaction to intelligence provided them. I have now watched them operate for a decade, and I have respect for their hard-working employees who are doing a thankless job. But I have come to the conclusion that TSA is one of the worst-run, ineffective and most unnecessarily intrusive agencies in the United States government.


The entire TSA paradigm is flawed. It requires an impossibility for it to succeed. For the TSA model to work, every single possible means of causing danger to an aircraft or its passengers must be eliminated. This is an impossibility. While passengers are being frisked and digitally strip-searched a few dozen yards away, cooks and dish washers at the local concourse “Chili’s” are using and cleaning butcher knives.

While bomb-sniffing dogs are run past luggage, the beach at the departure end of LAX is largely unpatrolled, and anybody with a shoulder launched missile (you know the ones they regularly shoot down U.S. helicopters with in Afghanistan) could take out any plane of their choice. I am reticent to discuss anything further that would give anybody ideas. However, these two have had wide dissemination in the media but are by NO means the biggest threats. 

I sometimes ruminate while standing in line waiting to take off my shoes, remove my belt, laptop, iPad, etc., etc., about the improvised weapons I saw in prisons and how hard they were to find. It’s fascinating what weapons prisoners can make out of plastic forks, newspapers and toothbrushes. Ask any prison guard if an inmate can make a weapon out of an everyday item, and how long it would take them.  Approximately 99% of what the average traveler carries on a plane would be considered contraband in a maximum security prison, due to the fact that it can easily be converted into a weapon. Toothbrushes, Popsicle sticks, pens, pencils, anything with wire (iPod headset), any metal object which can be sharpened, etc., etc. is a potential weapon. Carried to its logical end, TSA policy would have to require passengers to travel naked or handcuffed. (Handcuffing is the required procedure for U.S. Marshalls transporting prisoners in government aircraft.)

TSA’s de facto policy to this point has been to react to the latest thing tried by a terrorist, which is invariably something that Al Qaeda identified as a technique not addressed by current screening. While this narrows Al Qaeda’s options, their list of attack ideas remains long and they are imaginative. Therefore, if TSA continues to react to each and every new thing tried, three things are certain:

1.    Nothing Al Qaeda tries will be caught the first time because it was designed around gaps in TSA security.
2.       It is impossible to eliminate all gaps in airline security.
3.  Airline security screening based on eliminating every vulnerability will therefore fail because it is impossible. But it will by necessity become increasingly onerous and invasive on the travelers.


TSA’s “major malfunction” as R. Lee Ermey would say, is that they do not understand the threat. At least their reactions to the threat indicates an extreme naiveté regarding terrorists, their tactics and their operational philosophies. One of the major reasons that Al Qaeda has not successfully mounted a major attack in the United States since 9/11 is that Al Qaeda is analogous to a political action committee (PAC) or a political candidate. They live off donations from “legitimate” radical Muslims throughout the world. These donations are crucial, and there are many causes which compete for them. In order to keep getting those donations, Al Qaeda can’t appear to be losing, weak or incapable of an attack. Therefore, they actually put themselves in a little bit of a bind after 9/11: Their success was so spectacular that it has become almost impossible to duplicate it, much less create an even more spectacular act. Any attack that seems smaller in scope than those already achieved would make it appear as though Al Qaeda was “slipping” and terrorism dollars might go elsewhere, say to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

Failure is not an option for Al Qaeda; they are as risk averse as the public relations department at Disneyland. Al Qaeda is a brand to protect, and failure is bad for the brand. If there is a one in ten chance that an attack will fail, the powers-that-be will not likely green-light it.

 TSA screening, as it is now, is so predictable and known that Al Qaeda can know with absolute certainty what they can and cannot get through screening. That is valuable intelligence for them. In a word, TSA is predictable. This increases Al Qaeda’s chances of success.  It reminds me of counter-espionage surveillances against our cold-war adversaries the Soviets.  They were followed nearly all the time and they knew it. A good Soviet intelligence officer would identify the surveillance and the agents and vehicles involved in the surveillance. Then, he would be able to fulfill his “drops” and communications knowing where the surveillance was at any time. When you can see the surveillance, you know exactly what you can and cannot get away with. Only when they could not see the surveillance were they truly intimidated.

TSA would have significantly greater affect with a random-selection type of process. The benefits of random selection are: Approximately 80% fewer screeners needed, complete unpredictability of the likelihood of a search, and extremely effective searches of those, say 10%, selected. It would not reduce by 1% Al Qaeda’s belief that they could get through screening with a weapon. A 1-in-10 chance of a full search is too much of a risk for Al Qaeda. They do not plan their attacks on the “Well, it’s got a decent chance” method. They require  a sure thing. Putting explosives in a shoe and depending on a 10% chance of failure are odds they will not accept. So rather than ineffective (yet incredibly intrusive) screening of 100% of the passengers, there should be highly effective screening of an unpredictable 10% with a reduced screening requirement for the other 90%, say a magnetometer and bag X-ray, allowing people to wear their shoes, belts and pacemakers through screening.


Is this really okay with you?

 These are images created by the TSA’s “Backscatter/Body Imaging X-Ray” scanner. The images are not, they say, detailed enough to cause anybody any embarrassment. Frankly, they are intimately detailed. I am stunned, quite frankly, that the same people who fought against the Patriot Act because it was invasive and violated privacy rights have not howled about this invasion of personal privacy rights.

 I recently asked a TSA officer whether a man or a woman was conducting the screening at my “device.” I was told that it varied and they didn't know right at that moment. I declined being screened by the machine to see what the procedure was. I was then frisked—and told that by rule, I could be frisked only by a man. Good. I get that, but then, why aren't there male and female devices where like-sex screeners view the virtual strip searches. I have to be blunt here, I have a serious issue with any man I don’t know and who is not our doctor, seeing under my wife’s clothing. Maybe I’m old fashioned.

An immediate demand should be that these devices be operated with male/female devices with same-sex screeners. If that can’t be accomplished, then TSA needs to explain why. By the way, “money” will not be accepted as a justifiable reason.  They’re spending enough to cover it on other things. Don’t take my word for it; listen to a report by congressional investigators released just two months ago:

“Today, TSA's screening policies are based in theatrics. They are typical, bureaucratic responses to failed security policies meant to assuage the concerns of the traveling public.”  Translation? TSA doesn’t know what it’s doing, but is trying to put on a good show to keep the traveling public from catching on. The report, entitled, “"A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform" sharply criticized the agency,  accusing it of incompetent management.  Former DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner dropped this bomb, “The ability of TSA screeners to stop prohibited items from being carried through the sterile areas of the airports fared no better than the performance of screeners prior to September 11, 2001.”

Frankly, the professional experience I have had with TSA has frightened me. Once, when approaching screening for a flight on official FBI business, I showed my badge as I had done for decades in order to bypass screening. (You can be envious, but remember, I was one less person in line.) I was asked for my form which showed that I was armed. I was unarmed on this flight because my ultimate destination was a foreign country. I was told, "Then you have to be screened." This logic startled me, so I asked, "If I tell you I have a high-powered weapon, you will let me bypass screening, but if I tell you I'm unarmed, then I have to be screened?" The answer? "Yes. Exactly." Another time, I was bypassing screening (again on official FBI business) with my .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol, and a TSA officer noticed the clip of my pocket knife. "You can't bring a knife on board," he said. I looked at him incredulously and asked, "The semi-automatic pistol is okay, but you don't trust me with a knife?" His response was equal parts predictable and frightening, "But knives are not allowed on the planes."


Civil libertarians on both sides of the aisle should be appalled at an unauthorized use to which TSA is putting their screening: Identifying petty criminals--using one search method to achieve a secret goal. This is strictly forbidden in other government branches. In the FBI, if I had a warrant to wiretap an individual on a terrorism matter and picked-up evidence of a non-terrorism-related crime, I could not, without FBI Headquarters and a judge’s approval, use that as evidence in a criminal case. But TSA is using its screening devices to carve out a niche business. According to congress, TSA began to seek out petty criminals without congressional approval.  TSA have arrested more than 1,000 people on drug charges and other non-airline security-related offenses to date.  

The report goes on to state that the virtual strip search screening machines are a failure in that they cannot detect the type of explosives used by the “underwear bomber” or even a pistol used as a TSA’s own real-world test of the machines.  Yet TSA has spent approximately $60 billion since 2002 and now has over 65,000 employees, more than the Department of State, more than the Department of Energy, more than the Department of Labor, more than the Department of Education, more than the Department of Housing and Urban Development---combined. TSA has become, according to the report,  “an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy more concerned with……consolidating power.”

Each time the TSA is publically called to account for their actions, they fight back with fear-based press releases which usually begin with “At a time like this….” Or “Al Qaeda is planning—at this moment …..”  The tactic, of course, is to throw the spotlight off the fact that their policies are doing nothing to make America safer “at a time like this.” Sometimes doing the wrong thing is just as bad as doing nothing.

The TSA unions are now fighting against any reduction in staff, such as by implementation of more efficient protocols, hiring of contractors, or less draconian screening. It is simply not in their best interest for screening to get quicker or easier because that would require fewer screeners. The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica (R-FL) scolded; “It is time for TSA to refocus its mission based on risk and develop common sense security protocols.”


Just when I was getting to think that the backscatter x-ray images were humiliating, degrading or invasive, Susan Hallowell, Director of the TSA research lab eased my fear by consenting to have her backscatter image made public.

That’s Ms. Hallowell in the upper photo. And the two below--same day, same time.  See? What’s invasive or embarrassing about those photos? Obviously, I’m overreacting. Several things about these photos struck me; first, I of course noticed that the backscatter x-ray has cleverly detected the gun on her hip (it’s the black object just above her thong in the far left picture). That the gun would have been found by magnetometers in service since the 1970’s is likely not something they would like us to dwell on. Secondarily, I am struck by the similarity of this demonstration to the fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In that tale, a king is swindled by tailors who create for him a suit of clothes that are invisible to incompetent people. Of course, nobody would admit that they didn’t see the clothes for fear of being branded unfit for their jobs, and certainly the king wasn’t going to say anything. 

Looking at these photos, I wonder if something similar isn’t going on here. It is as if patriotic, loyal citizens who care about security and the United States of America and the lives of their fellow citizens will not see this as an abuse of power. Anybody who views these images as dehumanizing, humiliating, unnecessary or abusive are obviously not against terrorism and care little if airplanes filled with families fall to the ground.  But in this situation, it is essential that we shout “the king (or in this case the queen) has no clothes!” Going along with the status quo is the exact opposite of protecting Americans, it is the opposite of saving lives, it is the opposite of preventing terrorism, and it is the opposite of freedom and personal rights.

With the congressional spotlight on the organization, TSA is finally feeling what it's like to be screened. It has walked through the detector of bureaucratic failure and the red light has gone off. It’s time that we ask congress to have TSA “step over to this area” for a more thorough search. For once, "TSA screening" will be productive. I predict that dangerous amounts of inefficiency, derivative thinking, and reactive policy will be located, if not in their shoes, in their DNA.