Wired has an excerpt from a new book about the so-called “Golden Age of Hijacking” when US airplanes were routinely taken by crazy people and flown to crazy places like Cuba. In a span of four years (1968-1972), over 130 planes were hijacked, a threat level that, if it occurred today, would have the NSA’s nose firmly wedged in our genitals.
I found the excerpt fascinating for two reasons. First, the description of what happened to these people once they reached the island communist paradise of Cuba:
But though Fidel Castro welcomed the wayward flights in order to humiliate the United States and earn hard currency—the airlines had to pay the Cuban government an average of $7,500 to retrieve each plane—he had little but disdain for the hijackers themselves, whom he considered undesirable malcontents. After landing at José Martí, hijackers were whisked away to an imposing Spanish citadel that served as the headquarters of G2, Cuba’s secret police. There they were interrogated for weeks on end, accused of working for the CIA despite all evidence to the contrary. The lucky ones were then sent to live at the Casa de Transitos (Hijackers House), a decrepit dormitory in southern Havana, where each American was allocated sixteen square feet of living space; the two-story building eventually held as many as sixty hijackers, who were forced to subsist on monthly stipends of forty pesos each. Skyjackers who rubbed their G2 interrogators the wrong way, meanwhile, were dispatched to squalid sugar-harvesting camps, where conditions were rarely better than nightmarish. At these tropical gulags, inmates were punished with machete blows, political agitators were publicly executed, and captured escapees were dragged across razor-sharp stalks of sugarcane until their flesh was stripped away. One American hijacker was beaten so badly by prison guards that he lost an eye; another hanged himself in his cell.
I had never heard this before. That’s not surprising — either the treatment or the fact that I’d never heard of it. The treatment isn’t surprising because anyone with an IQ bigger than their underwear waistband knows that Castro was and is a brutal dictator. Donna did a series of posts on the old Moorewatch website describing the conditions in Cuba and little has changed since then. Little has ever changed in Cuba.
But the lack of publicity of that treatment isn’t surprising either. Many of the Left, especially in the 70’s, happily turned a blind eye to Castro’s oppression. Many bought into the cartoon version of Cuba that he happily sold to the West. And the media were very reluctant to call shenanigans on the whole thing. When Castro, having washed the blood off his clothes, is was praised and decorated by other countries for his “achievements”, the Cuban exile community, who had endured his brutality and lost relatives to his murderousness, went nuts. I don’t blame them.
The other interesting part is the response to hijacking. The hijacking boom was when the policy began that hijackers were not to be resisted or opposed. For the safety of the airplanes, crews and passengers were instructed to comply with the hijackers’ demands. That policy would be exploited on 9/11 to devastating effect before it was summarily rescinded by the brave passengers of United 93.
The other interesting part is how the hijacking boom was stopped, at least for a while.
John Dailey, a task force member who also served as the FAA’s chief psychologist, began to attack the problem by analyzing the methods of past skyjackers. He pored through accounts of every single American hijacking since 1961—more than seventy cases in all—and compiled a database of the perpetrators’ basic characteristics: how they dressed, where they lived, when they traveled, and how they acted around airline personnel. His research convinced him that all skyjackers involuntarily betrayed their criminal intentions while checking in for their flights. “There isn’t any common denominator except in [the hijackers’] behavior,” he told one airline executive. “Some will be tall, some short, some will have long hair, some not, some a long nose, et cetera, et cetera. There is no way to tell a hijacker by looking at him. But there are ways to differentiate between the behavior of a potential hijacker and that of the usual air traveler.”
Dailey, who had spent the bulk of his career designing aptitude tests for the Air Force and Navy, created a brief checklist that could be used to determine whether a traveler might have malice in his heart. Paying for one’s ticket by unconventional means, for example, was considered an important tip-off. So, too, were failing to maintain eye contact and expressing an inadequate level of knowledge or concern about one’s luggage. Dailey fine-tuned his criteria so they would apply to only a tiny fraction of travelers—ideally no more than three out of every thousand. He proposed that these few “selectees” could then be checked with handheld metal detectors, away from the prying eyes of fellow passengers. Most selectees would prove guilty of nothing graver than simple eccentricity, but a small number would surely be found to be in possession of guns, knives, or incendiary devices.
Profiling, in other words. Needless to say, this program was a success. Only one in every 200 passengers was picked for extra screening. Most did not object. Hijackings dropped. And janitors reported finding abandoned weapons.
The excerpt cuts off at that point and hijackings did boom again after the Dailey program. I may actually get the book to see why and learn how the problem was solved in the long term. But it comports with what Bruce Schneier and others have been saying about our approach to security: that we’re better off trying to identify terrorists than strip people of potential weapons. Almost anything can be used as a weapon. But very few of us are terrorists. It’s much more productive to find the latter than the former.