August 11, 2006 | Family Security Matters

Smarter Commercial Aviation Security

The United States and one of its most faithful allies in the war on terrorism, the United Kingdom, have providentially averted a terrorist plot of frightening magnitude that, had it succeeded, would have exacted an unimaginable political, economic, and social toll. The extraordinary intelligence work—including the heroic efforts of the undercover British agent who infiltrated the conspirators—of and cooperation between British, American, Pakistani, and other security agencies deserve to be saluted. The success is a good sign that some lessons have been learned since 9/11.
On the other hand, our homeland security officials have responded with the confusion and nonsensical, if not hysterical, regulations more tailored to demonstrate their “relevance” than to achieve anything substantive. The same folks who banned nail clippers before allowing them again will now busy themselves sniffing out “contraband” lipstick and mineral water even as the next plotters—and, in this long war, there will be more attempts by the enemy—walk liquid-free onto our commercial airliners. This little bit of déjà vu shows how much remains to be done in changing mindsets despite 9/11.
The fundamental problem in U.S. commercial aviation security, entrusted since the post-9/11 reforms to the Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration (TSA), is its cookie cutter approach to risk management. Thus the valuable resources wasted subjecting Irish-American nuns and Chinese-American grandmothers to lengthy searches have contributed considerably to our late night television humor, but very little to our actual security. And now the spectacle, duly broadcast by our television networks, of TSA's screeners liberating millions of our own civilians of veritable bushels of toiletries must have Osama bin Laden and his companions laughing up a storm in whatever cave they find themselves in these days. Of course, one cannot be too hard on the screeners or their superiors. The former, after all, were hired at starting salaries of $23,600 and the latter have to make rules that persons in such a pool of recruits could apply consistently across the board. In short, our security paradigm is far from being a model of optimal resource allocation.  
 We would therefore do well at some point—and heaven forbid that it take a successful terrorist plot to do so—to consider an alternative model for commercial aviation security that relies not only on high-technology equipment, but also intelligent profiling that screens people as well as whatever they may carry. A good example of this approach is the passenger screening system used by Israel and its national airline, El Al, since the early 1970s to good effect: the last successful hijacking of an El Al flight was 1968.
In addition to its impressive track record, this system takes into account that while terrorists have shown an impressive degree of adaptability in their tactics, making devilish advances in their deadly arsenal—as the just-foiled plot revealed—the fundamentals of human nature do not. It furthermore acknowledges what the TSA model does not: that it is impossible to subject every passenger to strict scrutiny and that, consequently, scarce resources should be dedicated to high risks. As Israeli officials who have briefed me acknowledge, the system is not fool-proof—no security system can be—but, over the long term, it does achieve better results than an undifferentiated system where each passenger is treated the same.
As anyone who has flown through Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport or who has boarded an El Al flight anywhere in the world knows, he or she is expected to show up three to four hours in advance to go through preliminary screening. In addition to checking the passengers on intelligence and law enforcement databases with a seamlessness that we have yet to achieve in the U.S., security screeners subject each and every passenger to a series of careful, but varied, questions. (Israeli screeners are, unlike their American counterparts, highly-motivated and well-paid professionals, all of whom have served time in the military and undergone rigorous training and most of whom are college-educated. Their work is also carefully audited, including probes by undercover agents posing as possible security threats, and can be sanctioned for lapses.)
Following the initial interview and luggage screening, all of which takes only a few minutes, most passengers are categorized as representing little or no risk and proceed along. A very small number—I am told less than one percent—are, however, flagged for further scrutiny, which can take anywhere from half an hour to all the remaining hours before boarding. The determination of who might fall into this less fortunate category is a “smart call” made by the screeners and their supervisors based on a range of indicators, including being on security watch lists, odd travel patterns, answers to the initial questions, appearance of nervousness, and other factors which make the passenger in question stick out. And, yes, these “other factors” include racial, ethnic, and religious characteristics. Politically incorrect? Definitely. Effective use of resources? Certainly. After all, how many Orthodox rabbis, Hasidic families, or Italian monks on pilgrimage to the Holy Land have ever hijacked planes?
Those passengers flagged for additional security screenings are subject to a lengthy interview and a complete search of baggage. The classic example of a success for this type of security model is the sad case of Anne-Marie Murphy, a thirty-something Irish woman, who was duped into being a potential suicide bomber on an El Al flight from London's Heathrow Airport to Tel Aviv in 1986. Miss Murphy was flagged for additional scrutiny when her story about flying there alone to meet her new Palestinian fiancé's family did not ring true to what the screener knew of social realities of the Middle East. Upon closer examination, a false bottom was found in the bag the fiancé gave her containing a powerful explosive designed to detonate in flight.
And even if the flagged passengers and their belongings pass muster, alert security officials have the discretion subject them to additional measures. Fro example, in July 2001, Richard Reid booked a round-trip ticket from Amsterdam's Schipol Airport to Tel Aviv. Categorized on the basis of his initial interview as representing a higher risk, Reid was subjected to extensive addition screening. When he cleared—officials now believe that he was probing Israeli security for a possible attack on an El Al flight—he was allowed to continue on his trip, but armed undercover sky marshals were seated around him. The July trip passed without further incident, which is less than can be said for his December 2001 flight on American Airlines which French and U.S. officials let him board with his now-infamous shoes.
While there are obvious differences between the United States and Israel, there are definitely some “smart tips” that the U.S. could pick up from its ally's emphasis on passengers rather than a single-minded fixation with their belongings. If the resources available for securing commercial aviation, however generously funded, will always be nonetheless limited, it makes every sense to concentrate their deployment where the potential threat is greatest, rather than wasting them on a series of marginally useful, “feel good” measures applied across the board. This will require the creation of a passenger screening database that is more integrated and less simplistic than the much-criticized federal “no fly” lists. It will also require a different type of TSA screener capable of conducting quick interviews and making rapid judgments. And, above all, it will require less political correctness and great awareness of the realities of the threat under which we now live—as well as more intelligence in our approach to commercial aviation security. In short, the problem at the security checkpoint isn't my smart PDA; it's the not-so-smart TSA.  

J. Peter Pham, Ph.D., is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, and an academic fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He has written for a variety of publications, and has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.