NEW YORK: It is impossible to fully secure something as big and sprawling as an international airport against a terrorist bombing like the one at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow, security experts said.
Airports are, by definition, public places requiring relatively free access.
The experts have long contended that serious holes in security at airports have gone unfixed, while most of the effort and money go into looking for weapons on passengers waiting at checkpoints.
But they have also warned that a sensational incident in one place can lead to widespread overreaction and demands for quick fixes.
'It always does,' said Mr Bruce Schneier, a security technology consultant and author who has long argued that there is no such thing as perfect security, and that pretending otherwise is foolish.
Mr Douglas Laird, a former Secret Service agent and one-time head of security for Northwest Airlines, made much the same case.
'At some point, it needs to be made clear that nothing is 100 per cent secure,' said Mr Laird, who now runs an aviation security consulting firm.
'We're talking about public areas. It doesn't matter if it's an airline terminal, a train station or the front of Macy's - as long as you have free access, you're going to have these potential issues.'
One measure already in place that could address threats like the terrorist attack in Moscow is what the United States Transportation Security Administration (TSA) refers to as a behavioural detection officer programme.
In the programme, plainclothes officers trained in what the agency calls 'non-intrusive behaviour observation and analysis' mingle with crowds, looking for signs of potential trouble in physical behaviour.
The TSA has more than 3,000 behavioural detection officers deployed, usually near checkpoints, which see more than 1.5 million people pass through each day.
Airport terminals have two zones: the already secure areas and the public areas. As many news reports since the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks have shown, there are problems even in the already secure areas, with poorly supervised access points, as well as inadequate credentialing and monitoring of some airport employees and delivery people.
In the public areas, experts said, behavioural detection could be useful as part of a protection programme that also included sophisticated intelligence-gathering.
Behavioural profiling is 'a good idea, assuming it's done right', said Mr Schneier, who nevertheless has serious reservations about how it is being done.
'You can go around looking for people who look suspicious, which works great if you actually know what suspicious looks like, rather than just deciding, this guy dresses funny and his food doesn't smell right.'
Mr Laird said the quality of training needed to be emphasised as well as the great difficulty of securing any big public place against terrorists, who could simply choose another site.
'Nothing in public is ever going to be anything near 100 per cent secure in a free society,' he said.
On the other hand, he added, 'good, well-trained cops are a little like good lifeguards. You need to have the ability, but what you look for is, what stands out.'
NEW YORK TIMES
MAJOR TERRORIST ATTACKS IN RUSSIA SINCE 2000
- Aug 8, 2000: A bomb explodes in an underpass at Pushkinskaya Station in the centre of Moscow, killing 13 and injuring more than 90.
- July 5, 2003: Several explosions occur one after another at a rock concert at Tushino Airport, north-west of Moscow, killing at least 16 and injuring 100.
- Feb 6, 2004: A male suicide bomber blows himself up in a running subway train on the Zamoskvoretskaya line in Moscow, killing 41 and leaving over 100 injured.
- Aug 31, 2004: A woman blows herself up near Rizhskaya subway station, causing more than 60 casualties.
- Aug 21, 2006: A homemade bomb explodes at Moscow's Cherkizovsky Market, killing 11 and injuring 55.
- Aug 13, 2007: A luxury Nevsky Express train travelling between Moscow and St Petersburg is blown up by a homemade bomb planted under the rails. At least 60 people are injured.
- Nov 27, 2009: Four cars of the same train derail as a result of a bomb blast, killing 27 and injuring more than 100.
- March 29, 2010: Two blasts go off in the Moscow subway stations - Lubyanka and Park Kultury - killing 40 and injuring more than over 90.