Steaming Heaps of Airport Security
The following is adapted from my current talk “Five Myths (and More) About Airport Security,” which I presented to skeptics and secular-humanist groups in January and February (see Home page).
A myth: “Layered security” is keeping the flying public safe.
Apparently taking to heart former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s mantra that “terrorists’ methods are continuously evolving,” Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole has developed a “common sense,” “risk-based,” “layered” approach to airport security. The flip side of the DHS’s old color-coded threat-level system, Pistole’s self-proclaimed “gold standard of aviation security” comprises not just five, not just 10, but a full 20 layers of screening and security.
Take, for example, the layers of intelligence and identification. These measures are based on the dangerous delusion that it is possible to identify terrorists by various means, and prevent them from accomplishing their missions. But consider:
Richard Reid, the Shoe Bomber. Because of suspicions he raised among authorities — such as not having any luggage —Reid was prevented from boarding a flight from Paris to Miami on December 21, 2001. However, after additional screening by the French National Police, he was allowed to board the next day. And on December 22, Reid was attempting to detonate 50 grams of the explosive PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) he had concealed in his shoe heel with a match when he was stopped by alert passengers and flight crew.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber. In November 2009 British intelligence officials and Abdulmutallab’s own father warned various U.S. officials, including two CIA officers in Nigeria, that Umar had been consulting with Islamic cleric and rabble rouser Anwar al-Awlaki, and that he had murderous intentions. Yet Abdulmutallab’s name never made it onto a no-fly list managed by the FBI. And on Christmas Day 2009 he boarded Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, where he tried to detonate 80 grams of PETN concealed in his underwear — only to set himself on fire.
Deceased Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. According to an April 19, 2013, press release issued by the FBI itself, in 2011, “at the request of a foreign government,” Tsarnaev was investigated. He and his family were even interviewed by the Bureau, and he was determined not to be a threat.
The 19 September 11 hijackers. All were foreigners who had entered the United States on legal visas, and all had real or fake photo IDs. In fact, among them they had 63 driver’s licenses, real and phony, for identification.
On top of this we now have the new, highly touted, widely lauded conundrum called TSA PreCheck — a security layer that supposedly identifies low-risk passengers while at the same time rushing to sign on as many participants as possible.
The program cross-checks information provided by nine participating airlines and passengers against intelligence databases in order to assemble a list of trusted travelers who are eligible for expedited screening at some 100 airports. Program participants pass through metal detectors, rather than full-body scanners. They are not required to remove their shoes, take laptops out of their cases or suffer other such inconveniences in exchange for $85, being fingerprinted, and submitting sensitive personal information to a government contractor that administers the program.
Downsides of TSA PreCheck are that personal information may be stolen or misused (remember that the credit-card information of some 40 million Target customers was recently hacked); there is no guarantee of expedited screening every time anyway; and PreCheck creates two classes of airline passengers.
In its zeal to sign up as many PreCheck members as possible, the TSA announced in December that members of the military may join simply by giving the TSA their Department of Defense identification number. Now please recall that on November 5, 2009, American-born Muslim Nidal Malik Hasan — a major in the U.S. Army — went berserk and fatally shot 13 people and injured 30 others at Fort Hood, Texas.
Enough said about ID and intelligence measures.