View Full Version : Marine Corps general stays at the 'pointy end of the spear'

08-02-02, 10:56 AM
Nearly a year ago, Marine Corps Gen. Michael Aguilar was getting ready to
retire. His plans changed when, on a trip to New York to visit family,
highjackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"I, along with every general officer in the Marine Corps that had put in for
retirement, immediately went back and said 'Pull my papers and play me,
coach,'" Aguilar said.
Unfortunately, the Commandant of the Marine Corps already had Aguilar's
position filled. Instead, Aguilar signed up for what could be an even
greater role in the war on terrorism. The Los Angeles-native is the Federal
Security Director at San Diego International Airport under the newly formed
Transportation Security Administration.
"To me, it provided an opportunity to keep in the fight," he said.
Now, he has to hire 600 security screeners and baggage handlers as well as
find a place at Lindbergh Field for oversized devices that detect explosives
on luggage. And his deadlines are near.
All 429 airports in the country must have federal employees screening bags
by Nov. 19, a year after President George Bush signed the Aviation and
Transportation Security Act. Also, the airports must have explosive
detection machines no later than Dec. 31.
"I'm approaching it as staring a mid-sized business," he said. "The first
thing you have to do is create an environment that allows my organization to
be successful."
His job includes acquiring the resources and space for large equipment,
developing the infrastructure, hiring the people and introducing the support
apparatus, he said.
The biggest challenge is installing the large equipment to screen all
baggage, Aguilar said. It could require major physical modifications to the
The Explosives Detection Systems, or EDSs, weigh about 9,000 pounds and are
the size of minivans, according to the Transportation Security
Administration. They also cost nearly $750,000 a piece. And there could be
construction costs associated with EDS installations due to structural
modifications at the airport.
The other device Congress approved to screen bags is the Explosive Trace
Detection, or ETD. The smaller, less costly machines collect samples and
detect explosive vapors and residues from bags.
"The layout at the airport in San Diego is much different than what you have
at some other airports. The security standards and requirements are exactly
the same," he said.
Boeing is doing a site assessment at Lindbergh Field to determine the
numbers of EDS or ETD devices needed to check every bag, Aguilar said.
The ETD machines rely on operators to collect samples by using swabs to rub
different areas of the bags. Swabs are then dropped into chemical analyzers
that separate and identify any threat of explosives in less than 10 seconds,
according to the TSA. The devices cost about $40,000.
EDSs use radiation such as computer-aided tomography similar to a CAT scan
or X-ray used in the medical field. The automated system produces a
three-dimensional image of materials in the bags to pinpoint explosives.
"It is the best in certified equipment we have right now," Aguilar said.
"There are other technologies out there but they have not been certified."
Further, he and airport manager Thella Bowens talk weekly about security
plans and changes, he said.
When the preliminary assessment is done, expected later this month, Boeing
will make the design recommendations, he said. Both Aguilar and Bowens must
approve the design.
"Nothing will be done at this airport without both our approving and both
agreeing and making any adjustments as to what best meets the needs of the
airport with the underlying understanding that it's all aimed at security,"
he said.
Bowens agrees.
She said Aguilar works closely with airport officials to include them in the
planning stages.
"He has contractors on board for planning and design and we actually sit
with him to review those plans and designs and give input on the process,"
Bowens said.
Additionally, Aguilar must hire more than 600 security screeners under a
federalized system. The current screeners, who are hired by the airlines,
will be able to apply for the federal jobs, but must now pass background
checks and meet stringent government requirements.
And while the Federal Aviation Administration battles Congress for TSA
money, Aguilar must wait to make all of the needed changes.
Last week, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta blamed congressional
budget cuts for delayed airline security updates.
Mineta told the House Transportation aviation subcommittee that the
anti-terrorism spending bill provides too little money to hire enough
screeners and buy enough explosive detection machines to meet congressional
Instead of the $4.4 billion the administration requested, lawmakers gave the
TSA $3.85 billion. Of that, $445 million was set aside for specific
programs, including airport renovation, new metal detectors and port
security improvements. In addition, the bill allows the president to
withhold $480 million of the agency's allocation to curtail spending.
Without the full amount, the Transportation Security Administration will
have fewer employees and less equipment than planned on the Nov. 19 deadline
for hiring federal airport screeners and the Dec. 31 deadline for inspecting
checked bags for explosives, Mineta said.
"Imagine trying to start an organization with 60,000 people and you just
believe in your heart of hearts the money is going to come eventually, but
it hasn't been allocated to you yet," Aguilar said.
But Aguilar isn't content to wait. He's already reaching out to the business
community for input on ways to balance the security concerns with making
travelers feel safe and ensuring the airline industry remains strong, he
Also, he's forming partnerships with local law enforcement and other
agencies. He said he's open to talk with any group.
Aguilar spent most of his Marine career at Camp Pendleton, he said, and
considers San Diego his home. The former helicopter pilot said Marines by
nature want to be on the front line of any conflict.
Before Sept. 11, the mission required Marines to go overseas to participate.

"We call it the pointy end of the spear. If something was going to happen,
you had to be out there at the pointy end of the spear," he said. "As of
9/11 that changed; the pointy end of the spear is no longer over there. It's
in our own backyard."
The threat can potentially be anywhere -- in the airport, the skies or
cities, he said.
"As much as I loved putting on the Marine Corps uniform, I'm at least still
at the pointy end of the spear, just wearing a different uniform," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.