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Editorial: Failure of pricey security at JFK Airport raises questions

Airplanes on the runway of John F. Kennedy

Airplanes on the runway of John F. Kennedy International Airport as a boater passes by on the waters of Head Of Bay, located in Queens. (Aug. 13, 2012) Credit: Uli Seit

Embarrassed by a breach of its $100-million high-tech perimeter security system, Port Authority officials are still trying to explain how someone could swim up to JFK Airport recently and walk all the way into a terminal before being detected. It's hard to imagine an acceptable answer.

Beyond the obvious questions about the failure of the system, which is also deployed at LaGuardia, Newark Liberty and Teterboro airports, the startling security breakdown raises the broader question of just how much safety we've actually gotten for all the money lavished on security since 9/11.

There is no way to harden every potential terrorist target. We'd go broke trying. And even if it could be done, a total security state is incompatible with a free society. What's important is that we get the maximum possible benefit for each dollar spent to secure the homeland. That wouldn't seem to be the case at JFK.

Not when a man, who so far appears to be a regular guy from Queens, could defeat all the motion sensors, cameras, radar, fences, barriers and police patrols on land and water in place at the airport.

Daniel Castillo reportedly had drinks with friends and then rode a personal watercraft out into Jamaica Bay. After the vehicle conked out, he reportedly swam -- however improbably -- three miles to shore in a bright yellow life vest, climbed an 8-foot barbed-wire fence and, walked across two active runways and into a terminal before an airport worker finally spotted him and alerted authorities. Imagine if he had been trying to avoid detection!

The Port Authority has everyone involved with the security system working to figure out what went wrong -- its security consultant, the Port Authority inspector general, the Transportation Security Administration and Raytheon Co., which designed and deployed the perimeter intrusion detection system, a product whose use at the Port Authority airports marks its debut in the United States. With about 104 million people a year using these airports, it's important they get to the bottom of the mysterious security failure.

The Department of Homeland Security isn't officially involved in the probe, although House Homeland Security Committee chairman Peter King (R-Seaford) has promised congressional hearings. It should be a broad inquiry looking beyond this one breach to explore whether the nation is getting the best return on its investments in security. Airports obviously need to be secure, including their sprawling expanses of taxiways, runways, fuel tanks, tarmacs and the planes they serve. So do trains, cargo and critical infrastructure such as ports, water systems, power plants, financial services networks and the computer systems that run them all.

In the face of such vast security needs, taking off our shoes and belts to clear airport security and walking through metal detectors seem a bit pointless, especially when you can just swim to the runway. Congress and the White House need to determine what is merely security theater and what really works. This way we can stop spending tax dollars to feel safer and invest in ways that actually make us safer.