Refocusing Airport Security

Risk-based screening system is needed to fight terror

Terrorists were caught planning to blow up airliners by mixing liquid explosives, and the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) response was predictable — ban all liquids from being carried onto airplanes.

We don’t need to ban water from planes; we need to keep terrorists off them. To most effectively do so, we need to get over our obsession with “bad” things (laptops, lighters, bottled water) and start looking for bad people.

Consider the morning of September 11, 2001. The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS), used to identify potential terrorists employing now commonly known criteria like buying one-way tickets with cash, flagged nine of the 19 hijackers on three of the four planes that were turned into weapons that morning. But our security response to that information was tragically lacking. Our “extra” security only required that their checked luggage be screened for explosives or held until the airlines were sure they had actually boarded the planes. The thinking was, and sadly still is, that while a terrorist might plant a bomb in a suitcase on the plane, he wouldn’t be willing to go down with the plane. That is apparently why carry-on bags and passengers’ bodies have not been routinely checked for explosives even after September 11.

In sharp contrast, Israel has long suffered the deadly wrath of suicide bombers and thus focuses its airport security resources on detailed screening and extensive questioning of travelers considered potential threats. Imagine how differently September 11 might have gone if some of the surely nervous terrorists were questioned by trained security professionals about what they were doing in Boston or Maine, their destination plans, whom they were visiting, or even small talk about the Red Sox. The behavior of two terrorists was so suspect that morning even a ticket counter representative red-flagged them.

Today, aviation security is still plagued by many of the mistakes and misconceptions of the pre-September 11 era. While we spend billions screening every piece of checked luggage, terrorists busily perfect other methods to get explosives onto planes, whether the passenger cabin or the cargo hold.

We will always be one step behind until we shift from a security system that treats everyone as an equal threat to a risk-based approach that focuses resources and attention on those believed most likely to cause harm.

We’re looking for a needle in a haystack — that infinitesimally small number of people who want to blow up planes and kill innocent Americans. To find them, we need to reduce the amount of hay airport security screeners sort through.

We should start by categorizing travelers into three groups. First, those with high-level military and government clearances should pass through airports with relative ease. I feel safe saying former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, both of whom have been stopped for extra security screening, won’t hijack an airliner. We should focus elsewhere.

Like those with security clearance, business travelers, who account for the majority of U.S. air travel, should have an opportunity to join a Registered Traveler program. I’m one of more than 25,000 frequent flyers who paid a fee, underwent an extensive background check, a biometric retina scan and fingerprinting. My biometric card now verifies my identity and allows me to skip long lines at Orlando’s airport. More important, it helps security officials avoid wasting time on low-risk travelers. Thousands more business travelers will sign up for the program when it is available at more than just one airport.

What prevents a terrorist from signing up for a trusted traveler card? Well, if terrorists voluntarily submit to — and pass — a thorough law enforcement and financial background check, we have more problems than we thought. Israel has successfully conducted a trusted traveler program for years.

The second group is ordinary travelers for whom we have sufficient background information, like grandma going to visit her grandkids. This group would face basic scrutiny (X-ray machine and metal detector) and be subject to random searches.

Remaining travelers would be flagged as high-risk and undergo strict screening and questioning by trained officers. This group would be determined by various watch lists and security factors, which should not be public knowledge.

Regrettably, five years after September 11, 2001, the airlines still do not have real-time access to all pertinent intelligence and law enforcement databases that could notify them of passengers who are potential threats. Likewise, we still wait to implement a follow-up to CAPPS, which is obsolete since its criteria for flagging suspects are now well known and thus useless.

Terrorists clearly continue to view planes as a high-profile, obtainable target. It’s time to quit pretending toddlers and terrorists pose equal threats to our safety and start being smart about airport security.

Robert Poole is director of transportation at Reason Foundation. A member of the Bush-Cheney transition team, Mr. Poole advised several members of Congress and the White House Domestic Policy Council on airport security after the September 11, 2001, attacks. An archive of Poole’s work is here and Reason’s aviation security research and commentary is here.