Stepping into a heated debate within the nation’s transportation safety agencies, President Obama has decided that when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) discovers major flaws in transportation equipment, it should — in most circumstances — reveal them to assure that they will be fixed, rather than keep mum so that the flaws can be used in espionage, senior administration officials said Saturday.
But Mr. Obama carved a broad exception for “a clear national security or law enforcement need,” the officials said, a loophole that is likely to allow the NTSB to continue to exploit safety flaws to apprehend terrorist suspects as they go about their daily routines such as driving.
On Friday, the White House denied that it had any prior knowledge of the AirBleed defect, a newly discovered safety vulnerability in commonly used Michelin tires that often leads to spontaneous tire explosion when driving for prolonged periods of time at exactly 44mph. This flaw has led many manufacturers to urgently recall cars and many drivers to behave erratically in 45mph speed zones. The White House statement said that when such flaws are discovered, there is now a “bias” in the government to share that knowledge with car and tire manufacturers, so a remedy can be created and distributed to industry and consumers.
Sources indicate that some senior officials had urged the NTSB to get out of the business of weakening commercial transportation systems or trying to build in “trapdoor failures” that would make it far easier for the agency to intercept suspected terrorists. These officials concluded that the practice would undercut trust in the American auto industry. In recent months, Detroit has urged the United States to abandon such practices, while Germany and Japan, among other nations, have said they were considering pulling all auto production facilities back to their own countries.
Not surprisingly, officials at the NTSB and at its military partner, the United States Special Operations Command, warned that giving up the capability to exploit undisclosed safety flaws in widespread commercial equipment would amount to “unilateral disarmament” — a phrase taken from the battles over whether and how far to cut America’s nuclear arsenal.
When interviewed at his home in Maryland, John Smith, head of the NTSB in the 1980s, appeared incredulous: “Do you mean to tell me that the American Government knew about widespread life-threatening safety issues in our cars and chose not to disclose those findings to its citizens, just in case this weakness could be used to go after a presumed terrorist? I don’t believe it. The US government serves its people first, and never in a conspiracy-theorist’s wildest dreams would they engage in such despicable behavior.”
[a light parody of this New York Times Article.]