Playing Catch-up on Aviation Security

TSA is always one step behind the terrorists

As soon as British authorities announced they had foiled a plot in which suicide bombers planned to blow up 10 jetliners using liquid explosives they would’ve mixed on board, the United States jumped back into the “feel good” security mode we’ve been in since 9/11.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff called for federalizing more airport security workers, above and beyond the Transportation Security Administration’s existing 43,000 screeners. The promise of more federal workers is supposed to make us feel safer.

Likewise, members of Congress, never shy about spending taxpayer money in the name of appearing strong in the war on terror, demanded the purchase of better explosive-detection machines for airports, the installation of anti-missile devices on every U.S. airliner, and screening of every piece of air cargo – with no thought for the cost or effectiveness.

We’re already spending $6.2 billion on the TSA this year, and look what that’s getting us. In December 2005, the 9/11 commission gave the United States a grade of “F” in our efforts to improve airport security passenger screening and a “D” in cargo and baggage screening.

We clearly haven’t implemented the changes needed since 9/11, and if we think more screeners and money will solve the problems, we sadly aren’t learning anything from the recently thwarted scheme. The terrorists chose liquid explosives because they could easily get them on board. Now that we’ve banned all liquids from planes, they’ll look for a new vulnerability. Instead of constantly playing catch-up and looking for “bad” objects like bottled water and toiletries, we need to move to a better strategy with the emphasis shifting to keeping terrorists off planes.

We aren’t all equal threats and we shouldn’t all go through the same security process. For security and screening purposes, there should be three categories of air travelers:

First, people with government or military security clearances should face quick, basic screening and be considered low-risk travelers.

Joining that first group would be frequent fliers like me who are willing to submit to extensive background checks. My biometric card now verifies my identity and allows me to skip the long lines at Orlando’s airport. More important, it helps security officials avoid wasting time on low-risk travelers. With more than 25,000 members – at a single airport – the program holds great promise once TSA finally allows it to expand to major airports.

Second, most occasional travelers, those who fly only a couple of times a year to go on a vacation or visit family, would face a screening process similar to the one in effect since 9/11: X-rays, metal detectors, random searches.

The third group would be high-risk travelers who would all undergo strict screening and questioning by trained officers. A comprehensive database linked to the nation’s criminal and intelligence agencies could provide highly accurate, real-time information to airlines and the TSA about which passengers have criminal records, suspect passport statuses or possible links to terror groups. That information, coupled with other risk factors (which should remain confidential for the integrity of the program) could be used to define passengers in this group.

Even the basic Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System in place on 9/11, which relied on criteria like whether passengers bought one-way tickets or paid with cash, flagged nine of the 19 hijackers as potential threats. Unfortunately, the terrorists selected for extra security were not questioned by trained professionals before boarding their flights that tragic day because we were only concerned with their luggage. The reasoning at the time was that if their bags didn’t contain explosives and they boarded the plane, they must be OK.

Israel knows better. Long aware of the threat of suicide bombers, Israel focuses its screening resources on face-to-face interviews with passengers, going over minute details looking for inconsistencies and closely scrutinizing behavioral patterns. They either prevent suspect passengers from flying or, if allowed to board, strategically position air marshals nearby.

TSA is slowly catching on, testing “behavior detection officers” as part of a program at about 12 airports. These screeners are basically trained to people watch, looking for any signs of nervousness, agitation or other expressions that might signal bad intentions.

But that’s just a tiny step in the right direction. Until we ditch our feel-good security measures in favor of a risk-based approach that dedicates appropriate resources to finding terrorists – instead of bottled water – we will continue to be one step behind the terrorists.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation and author of several aviation security studies. Following the 9/11 attacks, he advised the White House Domestic Policy Council and several members of Congress on ways to improve the nation’s airport security. An archive of Poole’s work is here and Reason’s airport security research and commentary is here.