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Monday, Nov. 29, 2010

Airport security 'theater': dancing to terrorists' tune


Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — With air travel peaking next month in Asia and Europe for Christmas and New Year after going into overload in the United States over the Thanksgiving weekend, governments should re-examine the costs and inefficiencies of security that add tens of billions of dollars to the cost of doing business as well as cause disruptions and angst to millions of passengers who just want to reach their destinations safely.

A backlash against excessive and intrusive security measures has already started in the U.S. Congress and among columnists. John Tyner, the putative passenger who yelled, "Don't touch my junk or I'll have you arrested," when Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel in San Diego insisted on giving him a groin check before boarding, has become an instant hero.

Tyler's plaint sounds rather pathetic when set alongside the great historic cries for freedom, but he had the presence of mind to record his treatment, which included the following exchange.

TSA official: "If you're not comfortable with that (check), we can escort you back out, and you don't have to fly today."

Tyner: "I don't understand how a sexual assault can be made a condition of my flying."

TSA: "This is not considered a sexual assault."

Tyner: "It would be if you weren't the government."

TSA: "Upon buying your ticket, you gave up a lot of rights."

Security officials have gotten themselves into a mess. U.S. President Barack Obama, who does not have to undergo the undignified screening that regular passengers suffer, claimed the week before last that his counterterrorism experts had told him that the new full-body scanners or pat-down procedures are the only ways effectively to guard against threats such as the attempted Christmas Day bombing of 2009 (when the would-be bomber tried to detonate a device hidden in his underwear).

If Obama's counterterrorism experts have told him that this is the only way to keep passengers safe, then he needs to get wiser advisers. Airport screening of passengers is no longer security but the theater of security — to make passengers believe that, after so many hassles and indignities, they will be safer.

Indeed, 80 percent of Americans interviewed do believe that they are safer because of the inconvenience — which just shows that you CAN fool most of the people most of the time (or maybe it is just wishful-thinking Americans).

A vast and burgeoning industry now makes its living from this theater. Besides the TSA itself, which came from nothing to a $7 billion enterprise, aviation security is estimated to be worth $70 billion a year — almost as much money as it costs business in the lost time of 2.5 billion passengers who travel each year.

Security officials continue to dance to the terrorists' tune. After the 9/11 bombers succeeded, passengers were prevented from carrying box cutters, knives or other sharp objects. The shoe bomber was grabbed by passengers before he could do damage, but airports promptly banned liquids and gels and creams. The Nigerian terrorist clumsily concealed a bomb in his underpants, so now the TSA is leading airports everywhere to demand that all passengers reveal all their assets.

No, that isn't just the obvious joke. TSA claims that you do not have to "disrobe" to pass through its new revealing toys, but you have to take off your coat, jacket, shoes, belt, and empty all your pockets, including handkerchiefs, wallets, money. Forget anything and you will get the personal grope as well. Machines at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport, installed for passengers flying to North America, reported a 50 percent alarm rate because they do not like handkerchiefs or even a heavy-duty sanitary napkin.

One has to wonder at the intelligence, and indeed the common sense, of security authorities. When George W. Bush was president, the Department of Homeland Security was offered a computer software fix that would distort the images seen on full-body scanners "to look like reflections in a fun-house mirror" while still revealing dangerous objects secreted under clothing, but it rejected the offer.

Of course, obfuscating the full frontal views would still leave the problem of protests about the potential dangers of X-ray doses.

Critics claim that the new machines are already outdated and lag behind terrorists' plots. Bombs in underwear are literally last year's terror; bombs carried inside the person will be one next option, just as it is with drug carriers. Customs authorities already use scanning machines that can pick up drugs carried internally, but evidently law enforcement officials don't talk to each other.

Authorities also seem reluctant to admit the escalating costs and quality- control problems. If every passenger at every airport for every flight has to be checked for the full panoply of potential terrorist devices, sharp objects, lethal liquids, battery devices, do-it-yourself bomb assembly kits, explosives inside the body by people earning less than $13 an hour, there are bound to be issues.

In the pecking order of security officials, the military and police are on top, not least because they get to use real guns. Private security guards rank next because they get perks and don't constantly have to face an abusive public. That leaves airport security to hire former hairdressers or bartenders who failed to make the grade in those jobs, people who love uniforms and being in charge, or masochists prepared to accept low pay and public abuse.

One senior supervisor at a busy U.S. airport responsible for more than 700 front-line staff says, "I want them to think Abdulmutallab (the underpants bomber) with every pat-down." Wow, that's almost explosive. No wonder ordinary innocent people don't want groping by officials who are convinced they are terrorists.

That illustrates a key problem: Airport security is premised on the idea that every passenger could be a terrorist. It is like looking for a needle in a haystack by turning over each stalk, ultimately exhausting and self-defeating. If there are 1,000 terrorists out there among the 2.5 billion passengers a year, that's a 0.00004 percent chance that the passenger whose junk is being revealed or being groped is your target, slightly better if the terrorists make more than one journey a year.

If the terrorists are smart, they are already looking elsewhere, at using innocents like children or old folk as their mules, at cargo, long the weak link, at inside jobs as airport or even TSA staff, at attacks where vulnerable passengers queue for the security checks, or at totally different targets. But passengers are so hooked on overkill security that if governments take money away to put to more intelligent use, gathering intelligence, doing background checks on passengers to keep the bad guys away from aircraft and airports, they'll feel deprived.

The answer is to be smarter than the terrorists. Check baggage, cargo and staff thoroughly; emphasize unexpected and random checks; keep the cockpit door closed; encourage passengers to fight back for their lives.

If you really believe that every passenger could be a terrorist, the only answer is to drape them all in hospital gowns and render them unconscious for the entire flight. Don't worry about frills of lie-flat beds, fancy meals or entertainment and pack them in 2,000 to a jumbo jet. Ryanair would love it and probably demand passengers pay for their own knockout drops.

Kevin Rafferty, formerly in charge of the Financial Times' coverage of Asia, is editor in chief of PlainWords Media. He travels 250,000 km a year.


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