Security needs to pass intelligence test: View from America Pt II


What perhaps sticks in the public craw more than anything to do with the recent furore over the new Transportation Security Administration’s body scanner/pat-down procedures, is the certain knowledge that terrorists have won, regardless of all the layers of security piled on.

From the instant Flight 11 flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, we have been fighting a losing war, one that has compromised us more than it has the terrorists. Most security procedures imposed since then have drawn disdain from passengers and security experts alike. Those airline insiders call the TSA a “rogue bureaucracy” and an “unwitting ally of al-Qaeda”.

The recent security controversy goes well beyond the effectiveness of current security procedures to how much Americans value their constitutional rights. The questions raised are primal and in need of answering. Equally distressing, there seems to be little soul searching at TSA which is sticking to its body-scanner plans.

“We have made Abdulmutallab [the underwear bomber] far more successful by giving in to fear and this bizarre sense that we can stop every conceivable threat,” stated an online respondent to the recent controversy.

The billions spent on transport security compares to the cost/benefit for the terrorists who openly chortle that the printer cartridge caper cost them less than USD5000. Clearly the terrorists have won.

“Terrorists bang on our cage and we just run in circles and jump in our water dish,” said Boyd Group International President, Mike Boyd.

The war was supposed to be about protecting freedom. However, it is really about protecting an American way of life. Politicians pledged time and again that they would not let 9/11 compromise a free society and then immediately did just that by passing the Patriot Act, something that should also be reformed.

Much of that life has been whittled away in the name of some phantom national security. Indeed, there is no better testament to how the terrorists are winning than the fact that those who question the government are branded traitor instead of patriot. Those who publish ways to get around the body scanners are criticised for letting the general public know how ineffective they are and that security is not all its cracked up to be.

Terrorists have succeeded in forcing us into changing and compromising the US Constitution. A great many Americans are now more afraid of the TSA and the compromises to the US Constitution than they are of terrorists who only have to fumble to succeed.

Meanwhile, two unpopular wars have helped in terrorist recruiting more than anything else. When asked by Yankees why Rebels were fighting the Civil War, the response was “because you’re down here”. The same is now true of the Middle East and Afghanistan, the latter of which has defeated every empire that has taken it on.

Whittling at the Constitution

What set people off during the recent controversy was the matter-of-fact statement by a TSA agent who told a traveller that they give up a lot of rights to fly. Somewhere along the way, without us knowing it, Americans gave up the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. That is at the crux of much of the complaints received on Capitol Hill where legislators have reported receiving a ton of correspondence on the procedures.

The TSA is now defending more than a half-dozen lawsuits on its practices questioning their constitutionality, amongst other things.

The way the TSA gets around the Fourth Amendment is court rulings providing the government with wide latitude in border searches in its quest for contraband. Scholars suggest that, given 9/11 and the foiled attempts since, the body scanners and pat-downs may not be unreasonable but, given the uproar, many would beg to differ.

While there may be no constitutional right to travel by air, air travel does constitute a USD1.3 billion contribution to the health of the economy. Consequently, to blithely tell people that if they don’t like the new security procedures they don’t have to go by air is foolish and counterproductive.

“Passing through a checkpoint for a routine flight to Newark was now like entering a maximum-security prison for a protracted stay,” said another comment.

Move to risk-based security procedures

Reason Foundation Director of Transportation Policy and security expert Robert Poole said, to date, security procedures have not been based on risk assessment but “driven by political imperatives to reassure frightened populations that air travel is still safe”.

That means Congress is getting in the way of developing effective security systems because it is not only making political decisions but using the power of the purse to impose mandates that are not based on actual risks. Congress, experts say, needs to be weaned away from the current “madness” to allowing the experts to base security on risk analysis.

The TSA and Congress need to take a lesson from the aviation industry which is no longer satisfied to learn from accidents. Aviation safety is now built on data-driven trend analysis that seeks to prevent accidents before they happen. That is exactly what the TSA should be doing: preventing incidents before they happen rather than impose new procedures in response to the last threat.

Congress fails again

Not surprisingly, current Congressional efforts in response to the controversy are weak, at best, largely because many of the current problems came by Congressional mandate. Politicians fear being labelled weak on terrorism so they have little incentive to change even if it would make Americans more secure. Indeed, responses from Congressional representatives seem to indicate that they are not sure enough about what needs to be done despite the fact that all they have to do is ask the next security expert they stumble over.

Just as with the other major issues – budget and modernisation – that impact transportation and aviation, Congress can’t seem to bring security to the top of the agenda. Activity centres on the American Traveller Dignity Act legislation introduced in November by Representative Ron Paul. This legislation would establish that TSA screeners are not immune from laws regarding physical contact with another individual or making images of individuals. This legislation is currently pending in the House Judiciary Committee and no companion version has been introduced in the Senate, according Senate Judiciary Chair Pat Leahy, who is calling on the TSA to protect the public and their privacy rights.

While the emphasis on privacy rights is comforting, Congress misses the point that what is really needed is an overhaul of how we secure America rather than piecemeal tampering with ineffective procedures.

Several others on the Hill are investigating the radiation exposure risk and whether there is more after machines have been deployed and been in use for some time. Another wants better analysis of the radiation exposure for security screeners.

Still, there is no wide, sweeping movement in Congress to change the way security is done in the US. Frankly, Congressional inaction is probably a good thing as industry and government work toward a more harmonised and easier-on-passengers security measures.

World turned upside down

The TSA now assumes that 100% of passengers are guilty until proven innocent which turns on its head America's Constitutional guarantee. But, regardless of Constitutional guarantees such assumptions fly in the face of efficiency and effectiveness.

"The current system of putting everyone through the same procedure – taking off shoes, pulling out laptops – is an incredible mess,” International Air Transport Association CEO Giovanni Bisignani said. “It is causing longer and longer delays."

Even TSA experts agree the “equal-risk assumption” wastes too many resources. It is ridiculous, they say, that 100% screening will be effective except in quelling political fears. They suggest, instead, behavioural analysis can pick up red flags in passengers. Advanced screening – metal detector, body scanner and pat-downs – would be saved for those flags. That would give a chance against the most likely scenario, several terrorists carrying small pieces and starting from different cities to meet at a hub. Then, in a sterile environment, they could assemble what they needed to blow an aircraft out of the sky.

“I feel like I'm being treated like a terrorist when I go through a TSA checkpoint because I AM being treated like a terrorist when I go through a TSA checkpoint,” said an online post.

What passengers want is effective security and experts say that is the last thing they have. A recent article in the Journal of Transportation Security illustrates the problem. “While carelessly placed contraband will be detected, the machines have glaring blind-spots and have difficulty distinguishing explosives from human tissue,” it wrote. “It is very likely that a large (15–20 cm in diameter), irregularly-shaped, centimetre-thick pancake [of PETN explosive] with bevelled edges, taped to the abdomen, would be invisible to this technology … It is also easy to see that an object such as a wire or a box cutter blade, taped to the side of the body, or even a small gun in the same location, will be invisible.”

Questions have arisen about how the body scanners were chosen in the first place as they come with an, as yet unknown, radiation risk. The fact that former TSA chief Michael Chertoff was instrumental in choosing the Rapiscan machines only to end up with the machine maker as one of the clients for his new security company has raised more than a few eyebrows, despite the fact that such associations are par for the course in Washington. Given the radiation concerns, a review of this choice would be timely. Some European authorities have also rejected the scanners used in the US as being ineffective.

Wasted money

The question then becomes about how resources are allocated and how the money is wasted on the security theatre when experts have not been shy in saying that money would be far better spent on doing what TSA knows full-well would be far more effective: intelligence and behavioural analysis. “Protecting” the public from the last threat just makes security that much more laughable.

“Governments all over the Western world have become laughing stocks of the dirty terrorists,” stated one online comment.

Of all the procedures for checking liquids, shoes, laptops and underwear rolled out since 9/11, only two, say experts, have been effective and they have nothing to do with the TSA. One was the FAA’s requirement to harden cockpit doors and the other comes from passengers themselves who have decided they will not become victims of another 9/11.

The TSA chalks up the controversy and the grumbling over airport security to its failure to educate the public. To say the TSA mishandled the roll-out of the new security procedures imposed on 1-Nov-2010, is probably the understatement of the year, if not the decade but that misses the point. The public should not be educated about body scanners and pat-downs, they need to be educated about truly effective security procedures in order to get the political capital the agency needs to do what needs to be done. But so far TSA seems to be sticking with its current hand and gambling it will work, despite the fact that many industry insiders have suggested blowing up the TSA and starting over.

Security litmus test

Instead, the litmus test by which citizens should judge the TSA is how effective it is in protecting us while preserving the basic tenets of the Constitution. The public knows that the absence of an event does not mean safety or security is working. What is needed is for the TSA to step back and listen to their very frustrated experts and devise a way compatible with the American way of life, while using eyes and brains to keep us safe.

Some, such as the US Travel Association point to the Trusted Traveller Programme as the answer or using biometric identification as suggested by IATA. That, too, carries huge questions and concerns with overtones of fascism that has forestalled any efforts for a national identification system. Beyond that, the question remains as to whether we want to trust our most private information to TSA, whose workers have been caught stealing from luggage. The Trusted Traveller Programme suggests, too, that everyone is guilty except these so-called trusted travellers. Frankly, a terrorist could probably gain trusted traveller status because we have to remember that we have domestic terrorists – such as Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the government building in Oklahoma City – who may just climb on the al-Qaeda wagon.

The fact remains that airports don’t have to use the TSA. They can hire others to do the screening but they still have to meet TSA standards. But there’s a better idea which will advance the science of transportation security instead of relying on the current knee-jerk, lock-the-barn-door-after-the-horse-gets-out mentality.

There are plenty of exceptions to the Federal Aviation Regulations. Of course, airlines have to prove the equivalent level of safety. The airports could do the same and develop programmes that are based on security expertise, not politics, including behavioural analysis and layers of security.

There has been much coverage about Israeli security and importing it to the US. First of all, Arab travellers have complained they are profiled in the Israeli system making it a non-starter for the US. Experts also suggest such a system would be prohibitive in the US given the higher cost per passenger incurred by El Al: USD56.75 compared with the USD5.33 spent in the US today, according to the Washington Post which examined the system. The newspaper indicated a similar effort would add USD38 billion to security costs each year. Still, given the waste and ineffectiveness of current procedures, it begs the question as to whether that could be trimmed to pay for a new, more effective methodology.

Risk-based procedures

Aviation security, according to IATA CEO Mr Bisignani, evolved by adding one measure on top of another with little attention as to how it works together. The product is a disaster for passengers and airlines alike.

However, there is hope on the horizon, Mr Bisignani told assembled media during a speech on IATA’s Global Media Day Tuesday. The underwear bomber marked a turning point in how the Department of Homeland Security does business.

“A month after the incident, US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICAO Secretary General Raymond Benjamin came to our offices to start a dialogue,” he reported. “Now we are working with the DHS and ICAO on a common agenda to build a robust, efficient and convenient system. 

“Developing a checkpoint of the future is at the top of everybody’s agenda,” he said. “With today’s terror threats, we need to be able to find bad people, not just bad objects. We can only do that by combining technology with intelligence. This will allow us to assess passengers for risk with appropriate security checks to follow. Further in the future, my vision is to develop a security tunnel. Passengers will identify themselves with a fingerprint, biometric passport or mobile phone boarding pass. As they stroll through a tunnel, they will be checked for all items without unpacking. And they will emerge with immigration clearance and ready to board the plane simply by giving their fingerprint again.”

He indicated such a system could be rolled out within two to three years depending on how fast governments can work. Full implementation could be had within the next decade. IATA said the plan has been developed for some time and would be based on the information provided by travellers when they purchase a ticket and checked by national security experts. It would be at that point passengers would be assigned to the tunnels: known, normal and enhanced security screening based on how much is known about the passenger. The tunnels would include sophisticated detection devices to screen for contraband and would not require the stop-and-start, stripping and unpacking that is familiar today.

Segregating passengers by threat level is exactly what security experts want. Passengers, said Reason Foundation’s Mr Poole, should be divided into high, medium and low-risk groups with different procedures.

“High-risk travellers would be those on any of the various watchlists maintained by the Department of Homeland Security, not just the current TSA no-fly and selectee lists,” he said. “Those in this category would routinely be screened via body scanner and/or pat-down. Yes, this would be a form of 'profiling' but not based on race, ethnicity or religion. Rather, it would be evidence-based profiling, using intelligence information and previous travel history information.”

Mr Poole and other security experts are adamant that behavioural profiling has no racial implications since studies indicate that body language and facial reactions are far better indicators of criminal intentions than the colour of a person’s skin. The US is already testing such a programme which should be far more effective than 100% screening.

British Airports Authority Director of Security Ian Hutcheson agreed that behavioural detection may be the way to go. He told The Guardian it has lead to the prosecutions and convictions of some identified by behavioural analysts.

"We have been using behavioural detection officers for some time now with some success,” he said. “Psychology is very much part of security. Terrorists use psychology to produce fear so why can't we use psychology against potential terrorists?"

Mr Poole indicated that the current method of stripping jackets and shoes could be a thing of the past. “Everyone not in the high-risk category would be considered medium-risk, since the system would have less information about them than about those in the other two groups,” Mr Poole continued. “They would  face old-fashioned checkpoint screening, fully clothed (including shoes and jackets) and walk-through metal detectors and two-dimensional X-ray of their carry-ons. And as with the low-risk people, a small fraction would be randomly selected for secondary screening.

“That approach would focus security resources away from those unlikely to be threats and onto those more likely to be threats. And in doing so, it would save taxpayers a small fortune. TSA’s army of screeners could be shrunk instead of continually expanded. And procurement of body-scanning machines could stop, since TSA already has more than they need for secondary screening.”

Mr Poole also said TSA’s conflict of interest with its dual mandate of security provider and regulator be addressed. It is, he said, at the same time an arms-length regulator to airlines, airports and freight forwarders while regulating itself when it comes to screening.

“That helps to explain why TSA suppressed a report it had commissioned in 2007 comparing the performance of TSA screeners with that of the handful of private security companies allowed to operate at airports under a heavily regulated opt-out programme nominally available to all airports,” said Mr Poole. “The consultant report showed that TSA-certified security companies were at least as effective as TSA screeners and that if more careful accounting were done, were probably less costly, too. TSA never released that report, and the only reason we know about its findings is that the Government Accountability Office blew the whistle on TSA’s attempted cover-up.”

It is likely that outsourcing security to airports, an option they already have, will gain in popularity given the current government-is-too-big attitude since the last election.

Time to act

The time is now for airlines to partner with their beleaguered passengers to push for security changes. The airlines have kept silent during the recent controversy and no wonder, since the TSA scapegoat allows them to dodge a hot issue. But it is in their interests to start the ball rolling, given the proof that security inconveniences drive passengers away.

At stake is their highest yield passengers so they shouldn’t wait for the next study to quantify the problem for two reasons. First, they need every passenger they can get and second, as long as the current system remains, the public continues to be vulnerable to terrorists and no one wants to reap those winds. Just because terrorists have failed in the last few attempts that have robbed us of so much, doesn’t mean that we should be complacent or fall into a false sense of security.

And here, the TSA is right. The threat is real and they are capable of launching another Medusa-like attack. That is why it is imperative to make the system more secure with effective procedures.

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