How a risk-based approach would focus resources on terrorists trying to bring down planes

After a Nigerian terrorist tried to bomb a Christmas flight to Detroit in the last hour of the flight, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rushed in with ridiculous “solutions,” including banning any activity-such as reading a book or getting into one’s carry-on bag within an hour of landing. This security theater approach is tantamount to banning all flights on Christmas Day or to Detroit-totally immaterial and irrelevant.

A terrorist can just as easily detonate an explosive device at the beginning of the flight, or in the middle. But TSA is not interested in common sense. Rather than preventing real terrorism, it retroactively reacts to each particular terrorist scenario as it comes along. With a different, more relevant, approach, TSA could actually be far more effective.

Suicide bombers and airplane bombs have been a major terrorist tactic for decades. So how can we single out those passengers most likely to have bad intentions, without treating the rest of travelers like criminals?

Passengers should be sorted into three groups: “known,” “unknown,” and those with suspicious characteristics. Yes, this risk-based approach means treating people slightly differently at the airport. But it would allow security screeners to focus on passengers about whom nothing is known, and those with suspicious circumstances.

First, the known passengers. Many passengers are frequent flyers who would be willing to pay for, and undergo, serious FBI background checks if that enabled them to go through a faster airport screening process. This “trusted traveler” or “registered traveler” concept was approved by Congress after 9/11, but never fully implemented by TSA. Anyone who voluntarily opts in to this program and passes the background checks would be issued biometric identification cards (think fingerprints or retina scans, for example) to be used at airports. This would send them through a registered traveler security line that would be a quick, basic security check, freeing up more airport security resources for the people we don’t know enough about – like the man who tried to bring down the Christmas flight.

One very clear, key lesson of the attempted attack on the Detroit flight: TSA and other agencies need to do a better job managing the watch and no-fly lists. Government officials now admit that Nigerian Umar Abdulmutallab should have been on those lists. To succeed, the system has to keep people who are on no-fly lists off of airplanes and ensure that the people with red flags get a lot more scrutiny before they board. These people need to undergo a very thorough examination of their persons and baggage. And they should face detailed questioning from trained screeners. These are the people who the aviation security system needs to expend its resources and effort on.

For passengers who don’t fall into those groups, the screening process wouldn’t be that different from what it is now. The biggest difference: security screeners should be trained and empowered to use their instincts and judgment, like police officers, customs, and immigration officials do to identify people who need more scrutiny. When police officers observe suspicious behavior, they detain people and investigate further. They are trained to develop skills and spot lies during short conversations and they are often good detectors of anxiety in the people they deal with. Security screeners trained to spot these behaviors could observe passengers as they come through the security line, ask a few questions while checking IDs and boarding passes, and direct flyers who prompt suspicions to greater security screening.

Right now TSA employees just push the cattle through the chute because they shy away from screening some of us more heavily than others, but x-ray machines and metal detectors can’t do it all – as the bomb attempt on the Detroit flight proved once again. The problem is, we’re assuming that technology is the only way to catch a terrorist because it allows us to treat everyone the same. If we continue to rely almost entirely on the machines, we’ll always be one step behind the latest terrorist plot, always reacting to their latest tactics.

Grandma’s knitting needle or water bottle can be a weapon in the hands of a well-trained person with bad intentions. Yet, as we learned with post-9/11 box-cutter mania, taking away everyone’s nail clippers will not discourage terrorists, who had already moved on to trying shoe bombs. Nonsense regulations that are not based on real risk analysis just do what the terrorists want – waste valuable security resources on the wrong things.

We must return some common sense to our aviation security system. Better intelligence and better screening technology are part of the equation, but alone won’t make us safe. They have to be implemented at the airport level as part of a system that focuses its money and manpower on the riskiest people and structures TSA into an agency capable of identifying who those riskiest people are. The alternative is to keep reacting to each new terrorist tactic after it has already been tried on an airplane, and that is a game the terrorists will eventually win.

Adrian Moore is vice president of research at Reason Foundation.