Right now, that isn’t happening, because TSA isn’t allowed to access the basic passenger-reservation data that’s used by U.S. Customs, its sister agency, to screen travelers who are trying to enter the country — mailing addresses, phone numbers, and so on. The customs system had flagged Abdulmutallab as someone who should get a little extra scrutiny upon his arrival in Detroit, but that system is off-limits to TSA. If screeners are going to pay more attention to high-risk passengers than to low-risk ones, they need a way to determine which is which.
If there’s one thing we know about Islamist terrorists, it’s that they’re persistent. Al-Qaeda has been obsessed with attacking jetliners for almost two decades. The underwear bomber is only the tip of the iceberg. In the 1990s, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed concocted a plan to blow up a dozen planes flying over the Pacific. In 2001, shoe bomber Richard Reid tried to bring down a flight from Paris to Miami. In 2006, the Heathrow bombers plotted to destroy as many as seven transatlantic airliners. And just last month, al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate came close to downing a pair of planes carrying cargo from Europe to the U.S.
They’re going to keep trying until they get it right.
We can’t afford to ignore the continuing threat against civil aviation, and judicious use of full-body scanners and frisks should be part of TSA’s toolkit. Still, these techniques could be minimized if TSA were allowed to do what Customs routinely does: use basic passenger data to single out the ones who are most likely to be terrorists.
Look at it this way: Would you rather have airport security inspect your phone number or your “junk”?
— Nathan A. Sales is a law professor at George Mason University. He served in the George W. Bush administration at the Justice Department and as deputy assistant secretary of homeland security for policy.