Despite the current uproar, TSA has imposed many sensible and effective regulations for aviation security and the agency is operating under incredible pressure to help keep the massive U.S. aviation industry both running and secure. Screening of people and bags is better today than it was on 9/11. The increased and strategic use of onboard air marshals, hardened cockpit doors, armed pilots, trained flight attendants, and more vigilant passengers has made it far more difficult for anyone to highjack a U.S. jetliner as occurred on 9/11. However, because of that success, today’s battle to secure aviation is largely focused on preventing planes from being bombed from within by ever more elaborate terrorist methods.
As I wrote on this blog after the 2009 Christmas day attempted underwear bombing, full body scanners have a legitimate place in aviation security, assuming proper protocols for their use are in place. The same is even true of enhanced pat downs. With the scanners, so long as the image is viewed by someone who cannot see or know who the individual being scanned is, and the image is not stored on the machine, privacy issues are reduced. In addition, the technology used in Europe that renders the image nothing more than a stick figure is evolving to the point that it may replace the current machines in use by TSA, further reducing privacy issues. Despite all that, there is a fundamental underlying problem with how TSA employed both the new pat downs and the scanners and it's not new.
Risk Based or Random?
TSA’s current protocols for using full body scanners and the full body pat downs are not sufficiently risk based, unless you believe that by not knowing exactly who the terrorists are, everyone could be a terrorist. Application of the scanners can take place randomly or en masse depending on the airport or check point line. I know this, in part, because I’m a frequent flyer who poses no threat to my flights, and yet, I have gone through a full body scanner without failing any prior level of screening. Moreover, my selection for additional screening was part of a long line of people in front of and behind me who just happened to be in the line with the scanner. There was little or no judgment employed by TSA personnel in terms of who was selected for scanning or pat downs.
Unfortunately, the current use of full body scanners and pat downs is actually consistent with TSA’s longstanding approach to security screening. After 9/11 all passengers and their bags were screened for box cutters and knives. Later that year, in 2001, after the “shoe bomber” tried to blow up a jetliner over the Atlantic we were all required to remove our shoes before boarding our flights. In 2006, after a group of British Islamic radicals plotted to use liquid based explosives to destroy a slew of transatlantic flights we were all limited in the liquids and gels we could bring on our flights. And now, after the Christmas Day panty bomber, far too many travelers are being subjected to full body scanners and pat downs to try and find bombs in their underwear, which the scanners alone may or may not be able to detect. What happens to the flying public when a terrorist tries to smuggle explosives on board a plane through his anal cavity?
Things or People?
We have to decide if aviation security is about primarily screening out dangerous people or dangerous things. Thus far, it has been about the latter even though whether a thing is a threat to aviation depends very much on who is controlling it. A gun in the hand of a trained pilot or air marshal is not the same as a gun in the hand of a terrorist.
Despite its focus on things, TSA’s ability to screen out dangerous items has been mixed at best with numerous studies showing how screeners over the years missed a high percentage of fake bombs smuggled by government inspectors through the checkpoints, many in carry-on luggage, which scanners and pat downs would have no impact on. Interestingly, private screeners at San Francisco’s airport in 2007 were three times less likely to miss the bomb making material than their government counterparts.
TSA has also failed to stop known terrorists from boarding aircraft. After trying to blow up his SUV in Times Square in May of this year, Faisal Shahzad was a wanted man placed on the “No Fly List.” Yet, he was able to buy a last minute ticket and board an international flight with little luggage while traveling alone as he tried to escape to Pakistan. Only U.S. Customs agents prevented his escape by checking his flight’s passenger manifest.
...And Secondary Screening for All!
The real threat to aviation comes not from inanimate objects nor is it universal or random. While it is appropriate to apply a reasonable baseline level of screening to all passengers, when it comes to secondary screening it must be risked based and at the core of the risk is a very small group of people. This does not mean that we never put a child or an elderly grandmother through secondary screening. Intelligence and terrorist tactics can change as evidenced by the 2006 liquid based explosives plot in which the terrorists at least contemplated using their wives and infant children as mules to get the explosives onboard the airplanes. However, from the start of TSA, it has at times been putting the elderly in wheel chairs through secondary screening, but you will not hear anyone from the intelligence community say there has been a steady stream of intelligence going back to 9/11 telling us of a mass array of wheel chair bound suicide bombing grannies.
When TSA pats down a child, enhanced or otherwise, or a national news anchor, or an elderly woman in a wheel chair, or a Member of the House or Senate, etc., it has several deleterious effects. First, it is too often a waste of time and resources better spent on screening high risk passengers who might otherwise get through. Second, it can undermine the credibility of TSA and homeland security generally because those witnessing the event know it’s usually a waste of time and yet the government appears compelled to do it anyway.
There is hope. TSA recently announced that the agency will no longer subject uniformed pilots to full body scanners or enhanced pat downs. Children under twelve will also no longer be subject to the enhanced pat downs, however, they can still be physically searched. Of course, screening pilots in this way made no sense from the start. Pilots control the aircraft and in some cases are armed to protect themselves and the plane. The key to screening a pilot is confirming identity.
Human Judgment and Suspicious Behavior
A recent CBS News poll found that just 37% of Americans support ethnic profiling at the airport, with 51% opposed, a virtual flip in the numbers from January 2010. But this is the wrong question. Profiling based on religion or race alone is almost impossible since religion is not delineated on State drivers’ licenses, and most Americans cannot distinguish between a Pakistani Muslim and a Hindu from India simply on sight. Moreover, many Muslims, including those from Albania and Chechnya appear Caucasian.
While purely racial and ethnic profiling would almost certainly miss potential threats, there are factors that can and should be taken into account as part of a layered security approach. Virtually every Islamist terrorist from 9/11 on that has tried to highjack or self-detonate on an airliner has been a male roughly between the ages of 18 and 35. They have also traveled to Muslim countries for training and indoctrination. Does this mean that all Muslim men between 18 and 35 are terrorists? Of course not. Does it mean a 22 year old exchange student from Pakistan should be put under greater scrutiny at the security check point than an 80 year old grandfather from Nebraska? Absolutely.
TSA has a plan for its screeners to spot suspicious behavior among airline passengers. This has to include more and better questioning of people at the airport, in the security line and at the checkpoint to determine who should undergo secondary screening. It should also be done in partnership with local airport police. Being able to spot suspicious activity is an important layer of security that does work. It helped stop millennium bomber Ahmed Ressam at Port Angeles in Washington State when a U.S. Customs Inspector saw that Ressam was nervous and sweating despite the extremely cold weather at the time. As a result, the Custom’s Inspector ordered Ressam to secondary screening where inspectors found explosives bound for Los Angeles International Airport in Ressam’s trunk.
What saved LAX from bombing was not advanced technology or the random or mass secondary screening of border crossers. Instead, it was the effective training and good judgment of a federal law enforcement officer who sensed something was wrong. Today, many aviation passengers sense something is wrong as they are subjected to screening that does not fit their risk profile or on-scene behavior. TSA has begun to walk back some of their initial protocols for body scanners and pat downs and they deserve credit for that. Congress and the public must continue to ask questions and voice their concerns as we all try and find the right balance between privacy and effective security in the air.
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