Politics & Policy

Eight Air-Security Myths

Why the TSA’s new policies won’t make us safer.

Two solid analysts, ex–Bush 43 speechwriter Marc Thiessen and Hudson Institute intelligence scholar Gabriel Schoenfeld, have published defenses of the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) controversial new scanning and patdown policies. They argue that TSA’s policy is a necessary reaction to the evolution of terrorism. Their analysis rests on eight air-security myths.

1. The fact that there have been no attacks since 9/11 vindicates TSA.

The logical fallacy here is known as post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore on account of this”). There is zero reason to credit TSA’s new tactics with anything save annoying unlucky travelers. We can see this by looking at incidents in which governments actually foiled terror plots. None of them involved TSA-style measures.

#ad#Remember the 2006 ten-jetliner plot hatched at Heathrow? The 1995 “Bojinka” terror plot hatched by 1993 World Trade Center–bombing mastermind Ramzi Youssef? The 2006 plot was broken up by the Brits, and the Filipinos broke up the second. Neither used TSA’s methods. The Brits used shoe-leather investigating, phone taps, and intelligence from a Pakistani interrogation of one detainee. And in 1995, Youssef was interrogated by the Philippine government, and confessed.

No other government uses the TSA scanners. No one — including the Israelis — uses intimate patdowns.

2. The Christmas Bomber’s near-success requires scans.

The underwear bomber who nearly ruined America’s 2009 Christmas flying season used PETN, an explosive that is difficult to detect even with the new scanning machines. (So are twelve-inch razor blades, apparently.) What was easily detectable by the U.S. was the bomber’s dad’s visiting our embassy in Lagos, Nigeria, and warning us about his son — several times. Israeli experts tell us that most of their security is applied before a traveler reaches the airport. Kids and lawmakers likely do not get stuck on Israeli no-fly lists.

3. Each method terrorists use requires a targeted response.

Because terrorists have hidden stuff in their underwear, we must pat them down. So when terrorists use body cavities to conceal things, as surely they will, will TSA attempt to search everyone’s orifices? Not a chance: Americans will not stand for anything like this. Which is why the excuses for today’s patdown molestations are so infuriating and phony.

We need to catch people before they bring down planes. But we do not do this by making flying, already a grim business since 9/11, a humiliating ordeal. Making travelers cringe gives terrorists a victory even without bringing a plane down.

4. The U.S.’s air-travel volume precludes TSA from using Israel’s methods.

Yes, America is bigger than Israel, is home to 45 times as many people, and has 75 times as many flights travel through its airspace every day. But America also has vastly more resources to draw upon; its per capita flight total is less than twice Israel’s.

5. Passengers know what the new procedures entail, and if they don’t want to fly, they can just as easily take some other form of transportation.

Actually, TSA chief John Pistole admitted he withheld pat-down details, thinking it would fool terrorists. He fooled us instead.

Also, care to travel coast to coast for Thanksgiving weekend by train? By bus? By car? How about Christmas weekend in Paris, going by boat?

#page#6. If we fail to search children and grandmothers, terrorists will simply enlist them in their plots.

Yes, terrorists would gleefully wire kids and grannies. And one Palestinian granny already has blown herself up, albeit not while flying or attempting to fly. But finding willing suicide-bomber elders in civilized countries is well-nigh impossible. Were it easy, it would have been done already. As for kids, instead of mauling them, our security screeners should scrutinize the elders traveling with them, as Israel does. Remember that every time a security screener searches a zero-risk flier, that screener is not available to search someone who may pose a real risk.

#ad#7. Terrorists don’t fit any profile; watching out for Muslims does not work, because Johnny and Jane Jihad might look like us.

True, we cannot identify all Muslims by looking at them. But another form of profiling does work: behavioral profiling. Johnny and Jane are no better at eluding expert scrutiny than are Abdul and Aisha.

8. Americans won’t tolerate profiling.

Does anyone really believe that Americans, if given a choice between intimate patdowns and Israel-style interviews, would choose being groped?

The bottom line is that Israel’s methods work. Instead of having ill-trained TSA agents search for bad things, have well-trained agents search for bad people. Profile by behavior and circumstance (cash ticket, one-way trip, etc.), and leave most of us alone. Compile accurate no-fly lists. Heed credible warnings. Ignore political correctness.

Instead, Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano reportedly has two more Bright Ideas: unionizing TSA employees and special reduced screening for Muslims in traditional garb. The former, rejected when the Department of Homeland Security was established, would make it harder to fire incompetent employees. The latter would have the unintended impact of so enraging most Americans that they will insist lawmakers make TSA apply uniform rules.

Israel’s skies have been friendly for 42 years. Not a bad record. We should learn from it.

— John C. Wohlstetter is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a trustee of the Hudson Institute, author of The Long War Ahead and the Short War Upon Us, and founder of the blog Letter From the Capitol

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