President Obama has announced some overdue steps to make better use of intelligence information in identifying bad people—those who should at least be subject to mandatory “secondary screening” when they show up ready to fly and, in extreme cases, forbidden to fly altogether. This is a welcome step toward shifting from the post-9/11 security policy of, for the most part, treating every passenger as equally likely to be a threat and therefore subjecting everyone to ever-expanding hassles at the checkpoint. We need to go further toward focusing limited aviation security resources on bad people rather than banned objects.
In doing so, however, it’s important that we build in safeguards to avoid ensnaring innocents onto the “selectee” and “no-fly” lists. I was alarmed to read Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein’s comment, just prior to the president’s speech, that the no-fly list (which now contains only 4,000 names) should be expanded to include anyone about whom there is a “reasonable suspicion.” That comment appears to reflect a misunderstanding of the difference between the two lists.
The selectee list (currently about 14,000 names) is what Feinstein should be talking about in those terms. A risk-based system would have a much larger list of those who require more intensive and thorough screening because there are reasonable suspicions about them. Those on that list should, properly, be scanned by a whole-body scanner and/or receive a thorough pat-down (though in these days of underwear bombers, if pat-downs are used, they will have to be a lot more thorough than current practice). Their carry-ons should be inspected by hand and with explosive trace detection.
In addition, to keep terrorist groups off-guard, the current practice of randomly selecting some ordinary travelers for secondary screening should be continued, distasteful as that may be.
The no-fly list is another thing altogether. Preventing someone from flying, especially a U.S. citizen with a constitutional right to travel, should be invoked only in cases of those who are known bad-guys posing a real threat to aviation.
One measure that will help prevent people getting onto either list in error (due to similarities of name and other snafus) is the TSA’s long-delayed Secure Flight system, now being implemented airline by airline over a several-year period. Basically, Secure Flight shifts the function of checking passengers against the two watch lists from individual airlines to the TSA itself, while requiring the airlines to collect from passengers their full legal name, gender, and date of birth. The new system will be faster and more up-to-date, more secure, as well as being far more accurate. One thing the Obama administration could do is to speed up Secure Flight’s implementation.
The other most important next step toward a more risk-based system is to implement a real “Registered Traveler” or “trusted traveler” system, in which people who pass rigorous background checks can get expedited processing through airport checkpoints. The nominee for TSA Administrator, Erroll Southers, said in his confirmation hearing that he supports such a program. I hope he really means it.