Why Naked Scanners and Crotch Groping Won't Keep Us Safe in the Air
by Frank Yacenda on Tuesday, November 23, 2010 at 11:22pmNow before someone makes some lame comment to the effect of, "Hey, don't you care about being safe when flying?" let me make clear at the outset that I do, indeed, care about being safe when flying. Trust me, being blasted into the sky at 35,000 feet does not appeal.
That said, the problem I have with our current emphasis on body scanners and groping passengers' more intimate parts and putting every man, woman, child, grandmother, nun, and pretzel vendor with an airline ticket through these invasive inspection techniques is that they are ineffectual, give a false sense of security (primarily to those implementing them), and address every conceivable non-problem while ignoring the real issues.
Let's be equally clear that nail scissors, tubes of toothpaste, shampoo, and prosthetic breasts do not kill people on airliners. Nor do the 99.99% of people carrying them, or who would carry them if they could. Terrorists kill people on (and off) airliners. So instead of diluting our limited resources toward hassling, embarrassing, inconveniencing, humiliating, and infuriating the 99.99% of non-lethal flying humans, we should be directing those resources to that miniscule, but potentially deadly, few who would do us harm. But the misguided sense of political correctness that has overtaken the country prevents us from applying intelligent targeting -- a term that makes a lot more sense to me than the dreaded and very un-PC term "profiling" -- toward identifying and rooting out those who would do us harm.
As someone who has worked in intelligence, let me also say that if someone who is a real threat makes it as far as the airport security line, much more is able to actually board an aircraft, that represents a massive -- not just a minor, but a massive -- breakdown in our intel mechanisms. By that point, it really is almost too late and is pushing our luck right to the limit. When one looks at the multiple systemic failures that enabled someone like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, last Christmas's underwear bomber, to get on board a commercial airliner, it should be obvious that no amount of groping or scanning or toothpaste banning is going to make up for those systemic failures. What is even worse, the new body scanners, while they might give a nice view of passengers' private parts, will not see explosives concealed inside a body cavity (and very possibly in some cases not even outside the body). Nor would a patdown, no matter how intimate.
The fact remains that all of the security and inconvenience we have been put through in recent years has not caught one bona fide terrorist. And given its reactionary nature -- always trying to catch up with the latest menace du jour -- it is doomed to be ever one step behind the curve. One year someone puts explosives in their tennies, so we are condemned to walking around the security area in our socks. The next year someone loads up their undies with some incendiaries, and we have TSA agents groping around our crotches. I suppose that if the next would-be bomber is wearing a green shirt, or has pictures of Lindsay Lohan in his wallet, that we'll be barred from wearing green shirts or carrying photos of Lindsay Lohan in our wallets.
Meanwhile, as we expend ever greater amounts of toil and treasure on the most obvious points of vulnerability, we continue to ignore some really critical but less visible vulnerabilities. And I would venture to say this tendency is not lost on those who would do us harm, as the recent rash of getting explosives on-board aircraft by way of UPS parcels of printer inks demonstrates. But instead of saying that we need to dedicate a serious effort at monitoring and inspecting unaccompanied air freight and parcels, we put a ban on shipping printer ink (and you thought my green shirt example was frivolous?) It seems the terrorists have mastered a principal that continues to elude our security watchdogs, which is the principal of hiding things in plain sight.
Additionally, while virtually all our effort is directed at airliner security, such as it is, we are doing absolutely nothing to assure security on conveyances like trains, buses, and cargo vessels. I recently took some friends to board an Amtrak train in New Orleans. Despite having enough baggage, boxes, and other accoutrement to fill my van, no one so much as put them or their baggage through a metal detector, let alone any other sort of security. It was the same story more than a year prior. This to me is shocking. It doesn't take the imagination of a spy novelist to see the incredible damage a dirty bomb or small nuclear device detonated aboard a train passing through an urban area can do, or even the hostage-taking potential afforded by a train full of passengers. And meanwhile, years after this vulnerability was recognized, we inspect but a very small percentage of ship-borne cargo entering the country. And let's not even get into the issue of our criminally lax border security.
In all my years and probably millions of miles of traveling around the world, two specific security checks stand out in my mind as the most effective. One occurred 22 years ago while I was waiting to board a flight out of Bogota, Colombia. Picture everyone's surprise when, with no warning, a team of police with a very eager sniffer dog suddenly appeared in the departure lounge, making the rounds from passenger to passenger. Just the psychological effect that dog had would be enough to make one think twice before attempting to carry on any contraband. No doubt that dog was sniffing for drugs, but the incredible acuity of a dog's sense of smell -- thousands of times more sensitive than a human nose -- can also be directed to seek out explosive substances that even technological devices might not detect.
The other security experience that stands out took place as I was flying out of Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1971, on the former TWA. It consisted of a directed series of questions, careful observations, and a personal inspection in a small curtained room. I won't belabor the point of Israeli airline security, which is legend, but the point of differentiation with our version of security, where we are looking for things, is that Israeli security is looking for persons -- the persons who would blow up or hijack an airliner, not the 99.99% who would do no harm but who might be over their TSA-dictated limit of deoderant or breast milk. But again, our slavish and idiotic political correctness prevents us from doing that. So we have someone like Janet Napolitano -- would someone please find a way to send Janet-From-Another-Planet Incompetano back to Arizona before she kills us all? -- saying with a straight face that DHS would consider not requiring body inspections or naked scans of Muslim women, but meanwhile we would continue to require such things of everyone else, even though one is (and has been) a potential vector of terror, while the grandmother from Des Moines, the teenager from Akron, and the priest from Providence, much less the flight crew from anywhere, are in no way even close to the target population that aims to do us harm. Only in America.
Finally, for another explanation of our misguided so-called security effort and direction, in the immortal words of Deep Throat, follow the money. I won't expend more time on this except to point you to the links I am posting here if you want to see the one explanation that makes the most sense as to why we are spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars on hardware, and more hundreds of millions on operating and maintaining that hardware, that will have little, if any, impact on our aviation security. And meanwhile we may be forced to take even more funding away from our human intel resources, the resources that can help keep a terrorist from ever reaching the airline security line, that last line of defense, in order to pay for these expensive placebos.
For those among you traveling this holiday weekend -- bon voyage, and may the turkey that is our current airline security program not goose you too hard in the crotch.