A Pilot's Perspective.

      By Barry Meek. 

February 2014     

Our National Security.  Who is Watching?

In Canada and the United States, we citizens should be feeling pretty secure about sovereignty and our safety.   After all, we have MANY agencies looking out for us in both countries, guarding our borders and keeping away those who would do us harm with bombs, guns, drugs and so on. 

 U.S. Customs and Border Protection secures their homeland by preventing the illegal entry of people and goods into the United States.   The CBP is the largest law enforcement agency in the U.S.  The Canadian Border Services Agency is our federal agency responsible for border enforcement, immigration and customs services.  

These organizations are the first-line defense, so to speak, against the bad people and organizations bent on destroying or terrorizing our way of life.  But we still have much more protection going for us.  The Coast Guard, the national security agencies, department of Homeland Security, CSIS, the FBI, ATF, the Secret Service, CATSA, RCMP, CIA, state and provincial police, Departments of Public Safety,  Special Forces, all the military branches, the SPCA, private investigators and locksmiths. In northern Canada, bands of roving “Rangers”, a part-time force, conducts surveillance or sovereignty patrols far above the Arctic circle.  Made up of Inuit, First Nations, Métis and non-Aboriginals, they assist the military operating against any invaders that can keep warm enough to operate at 50 below zero.  And so it goes on and on.  There’s no way to calculate the number of people employed by this massive, “biggest-of-all-industries” in the western world. 

At any given major airport at any given time, there are “agents” in the security lineups patting down passengers, looking in their shoes, scanning entire bodies and opening luggage to confiscate shampoo and toothpaste.  Their mission is set in stone!  Do not allow anything on an airplane that could be used as a weapon (that includes fingernail clippers) or in the construction of a device capable of damaging that aircraft. 

Vancouver terminal YVR, photo by Barry Meek.

So it’s surprising that with all this inconvenience and trouble they cause for travelers, that an 18 year old student was able to board an airplane in Edmonton last September (2013) with a homemade pipe bomb.  Security initially found it in his carry-on bag, but he was informed he could take it with him.  Highly trained CATSA “agents” didn’t recognize it for what it was.  The young man declined to take it on board.  Off he went on a holiday to Mexico and while he was gone, someone decided that it might not have been a good idea to let him simply walk on that aircraft.   The Canadian authorities had to wait until he returned to Edmonton, where the teenager was apprehended by what sources described as a large contingent of RCMP officers, which included a SWAT team, bomb squad and an explosives-sniffing dog.

However, in their statement, the RCMP said: “Two plain-clothed officers were dispatched, and the suspect was apprehended without incident.”  The Canadian Transport Minister declared, “The safety of Canadians and the travelling public is our government's top priority”.  The CATSA officer thought, “I guess this means E.I. for me”.   And at the end of the day, the young student was allowed to go home after paying a $100 fine, and was told to donate $500 to a burn unit.  Keystone Cops?  Before you start thinking that our Canadian security is bad, what about this one south of the border. 

About one month later, there was another newsworthy “breach of national security” when a small airplane flew undetected from Canada into the United States, and continued all the way to Nashville, Tennessee … a distance of 500 miles over U.S. soil.  Nobody noticed until well into the next day, several hours after the plane had crashed on the Nashville international airport.   A 45 year old male rented a Cessna 172 from the Windsor Flying Club, departed around 8 pm, and disappeared into the night heading south.  Evidently, he crashed at about three in the morning, the plane burned and the pilot was killed.  The reason for the flight hasn’t been established, but the security concerns raised are the big issues.   Questions like, “how did this aircraft fly 500 miles into the U.S. and then circle and crash on a major airport without anyone noticing?”   Further, in spite of the big fire, the air traffic controllers never saw it.  Just before 9 o’clock in the morning, a departing G.A. pilot taxied past the charred wreckage and wondered what it was doing there.  He reported it to the surprised tower personnel. 

There are a lot more questions in this incident than there are answers, even at this point in time.  The NTSB is investigating but has already released, in a preliminary report, all the facts stated above.  You can bet that several other agencies are involved, looking for their own answers.  I’d suggest the FBI, the ATF, the Secret Service, Customs & Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, the FAA, Transport Canada, the RCMP, CSIS, insurance companies, the CRA as well as local police forces in Windsor and in Nashville all have their people in the mess.   This is a big international incident!  You would think that with all the security measures already in force, it couldn’t have happened in the first place.  Where were the F-16’s?  Who was watching the radar screens?

What’s been missed here?  Is this issue of “homeland security” just too big to handle?  Would hiring even more people solve the problems?  Will these guys who perpetrate international issues keep coming out of left field and blindsiding us with more novel ideas?  Perhaps instead of frisking old ladies and taking away their Mylanta and Tums in the airport security lineups, resources ought to be re-deployed to where they’d be more effective.   Governments tend to operate using knee-jerk reactions, then wonder why the real problems don’t go away.  Don’t ask me what the solution is.  I’m not making the decisions in the first place.  It’s not my job.  The whole “homeland security” idea needs some re-thinking.  And I’d suggest if the officials in charge can’t figure it out, and come up with better answers than telling us that “The safety of the traveling public is the government’s top priority”, then they ought to step aside and let someone else give it a whirl.   

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