Airport security is a necessary evil. It can be intrusive, even humiliating. But it’s also the last chance we have to stop al-Qaeda from smuggling weapons onto our airplanes. There’s a simple way to make the security checkpoint both more effective and less degrading: Let TSA use basic passenger-reservation data to identify the riskiest travelers and single them out for extra attention — the same data that customs officials already use at the border.
Last week, a traveler in San Diego created a national stir when he accused TSA of, ah, heavy petting. A video of the encounter, which quickly went viral, shows the man in a heated conversation after refusing the screeners’ requests to submit to a full-body scan — derided by some as a “virtual strip search” — or a frisk. “You touch my junk,” he warned, “and I’m going to have you arrested.”
It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for the guy — especially since he was threatened with a $10,000 fine.
Modern air travel isn’t exactly glamorous. It’s bad enough that travelers have to wait in interminable lines before being herded into cramped airliners, where they are charged extra to check their bags, only to arrive at their destinations late. The last thing anyone wants is the additional indignity of being fondled by a bureaucrat.
But it would be unwise to restrict advanced imaging technologies or pat-down searches. TSA’s job is to keep bombs off of planes. It needs to inspect the places bombs might be hidden. And the stark reality is that terrorists aren’t shy about hiding explosives in their nether regions.
Last Christmas, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab almost succeeded in downing Northwest Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, by igniting powerful explosives concealed in his underwear. A few months earlier, a suicide bomber nearly assassinated a top Saudi counterterrorism official when he detonated his own underwear bomb. (Initial reports were that the bomb was hidden inside the attacker’s body, but intelligence officials now believe it was in his skivvies.)
Conventional metal detectors aren’t always capable of spotting these weapons. They’re often made of plastic explosives (the underwear bomber) or liquid explosives (the Heathrow plotters) and don’t contain enough metal to set off a magnetometer. That’s part of the reason why Abdulmutallab was able to make it through airport security overseas.
To find the next generation of bombs, you need the next generation of scanners. Today’s millimeter-wave and backscatter machines are capable of detecting nonmetallic weapons hidden under layers of clothing. They aren’t infallible — no security measure is — but they’re better than entrusting our lives to technology from the 1960s.
That’s not to say that airport security is perfect. Far from it. It’s ludicrous to force pilots, toddlers, and other upstanding travelers to parade through full-body scanners or expose their “junk” to probing hands. That’s bad for privacy, and it’s a waste of effort. TSA should be focusing on the riskiest passengers. It’s not enough to look for weapons; TSA needs to look for terrorists.
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.