Clark Kent Ervin Talks National Risk with the Security Executive Council

SEC: In your view, where has the United States significantly improved its response to national risks, and where are we still most vulnerable?

Ervin: We’ve most improved in two categories. One: aviation. We are always very good at fighting the last war. We were attacked by means of aviation on 9/11 and so it follows that we have devoted the bulk of our time, money and attention since 9/11 to securing the aviation sector. Cockpit doors are hardened. Some pilots and flight attendants are armed, which was not legally possible on 9/11. The number of air marshals on 9/11 – I’m told – was 11. Now I’m told it’s in the thousands. That’s still not enough – notably there was not an air marshal on the Christmas day flight (on which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate an explosive). And I would argue that screeners are better trained now as well.

The second positive thing is that the degree of information intelligence sharing between and among federal agencies, state and local governments and the private sector is a quantum leap better now than it was nine years ago. Federal agencies, the CIA and the FBI will occasionally hoard information that should be passed on – some of that is so ingrained institutionally that it’s just impossible to get rid of totally, but it’s much better now than it was.

On the down side, even in the aviation sector it’s still easy to sneak guns, bombs and knives on board, and the Christmas day plot points that out. Terrorists know there are still weaknesses in the aviation system, and they’re exploiting them faster than we’re closing the vulnerabilities.

Second, I really worry about continued pushback from the Obama administration on the 9/11 Commission recommended mandate to scan 100 percent of maritime cargo for radiation. DHS is pushing back and saying it’s technologically infeasible, costly and hard to get foreign governments to cooperate. All of that is true; the present generation of technology doesn’t work well enough for this level of screening, nor does next-generation technology. But I was thinking of President Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon, issued in 1961 and accomplished in 1969. When he made that challenge it was technologically infeasible for men to walk on the moon, and it was hugely expensive. It was impossible. But we didn’t say we weren’t going to work toward it. We made it a goal and developed the scientific and technological expertise to achieve it.

That’s what needs to happen with cargo screening. Because we don’t have the technology now, we need to redouble the effort to develop it. I’m confident we have the ingenuity in America to do it, but we don’t have the will. But we all know that if, God forbid, tomorrow there were an attack with a nuclear weapon smuggled in a cargo container, we would come up with a crash program to develop technology to scan in an efficient way and we would bludgeon the international community to do what they need to do to cooperate with that.

We continue to be crisis driven, and that remains one of our biggest challenges.