The Sept. 11 terrorist hijackings, and Monday's tragic crash of American Airlines Flight 587 apparently caused by an unknown mechanical failure, have propelled the issue of airline safety to the forefront. It also resurrects a shameful episode of political malfeasance on the part of former Vice President Al Gore. After the loss of Trans World Airways Flight 800 on July 17, 1996, President Clinton appointed Gore chairman of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety, charged with a comprehensive overview of airline safety issues. At the time, it seemed that the administration was doing the right thing and moving in positive directions to make airline travel safer. In early September 1996, Gore and his commission rendered a comprehensive preliminary report that delineated the need for tougher counter-terrorism procedures. But as reported by Washington Times columnist Tony Blankley on Sept. 6, 2000 - just a year before the terror attacks -- the major airlines instantly set upon Gore and the commission, asserting that the panel's recommendations, if enacted, would result in a loss of revenue. After about a week of considering both the ramifications of the commission's actions, as well as the political fallout, Gore acquiesced. He contacted Carol Hallett, a lobbyist for the airline industry, assuring her in writing that the airlines would not lose any of their precious revenue. The following day, according to Blankley, the Democratic National Committee received a $40,000 contribution from Trans World Airlines. Within two weeks, other airlines suddenly became quite philanthropic, with Northwest, American and United Airlines kicking in another $55,000 in order to assist the 1996 presidential re-election campaign. It did not stop there. In the following two months, just prior to the national election, United Airlines opened its wallet by contributing another $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee, American Airlines coughed up another cool $250,000 to the Democrats, and Northwestern Airlines weighed in with another $53,000 to soften up the nest. Call me naive, but this smells to high heaven! In January 1997, just after the Clinton-Gore presidential re-election victory, Gore swung into action again. The vice president submitted a final draft of the airline safety commission report and quite amazingly, all the original recommendations relating to security measures were suddenly eliminated from the document. But as they say in the National Basketball Association, the fat lady had not yet begun to sing. Some of the Gore Commission members were not happy with what they apparently suspected was going on. Even the somnolent and hapless CIA Director, John Deutsch, squirmed in his chair about this sudden change in the report. Faced with this opposition, Gore retracted the report and its pro-industry recommendations. In February of 1997, the final report emerged, containing a number of recommendations, which would in fact, cost some of the airline industry fat cats some money. The commission's recommendations included improved bomb detectors, more extensive training for airport security personnel, criminal background checks for airport workers and increased K-9 dog patrols at airports. These were all good, basic approaches. However, upon reading the fine print one learned that there was no deadline or target date for implementation of the protective measures. Because no implementation deadlines or requirements were set, the findings amounted to nothing more than a "Gee, wouldn't it be nice", wish list for improving safety. Gore had a final meeting with his commission in early February 1997. During that meeting Gore stated that he would allow an open forum for those on the commission who opposed the report. There was a dissenter on the commission: Victoria Cummock, one of the panel members and the widow of a victim of the 1988 terrorism bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Cummock objected to the airline sellout and was justifiably quite disturbed at Gore's coziness with the industry. Ms. Cummock had to file a civil suit to gain access to the files that would support her dissent. But true to the Clinton administration's form, Gore, shortly after the February 1997 meeting announced to the president, and to the world, that the findings of his commission, including the final report recommendations, were unanimous. To say that Vice President Gore, as chairman of the White House Commission on Aviation Safety, was less than honest is certainly sugarcoating my estimation of his abysmal performance. And two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, this "politics as usual" maneuver, by the Clinton administration over four years ago, smacks of the dangerous disinterest to national security that constitutes the major political legacy of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
J. David Galland