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Revamping of airport checkpoint system urged

Video
A man who refused a body scan and pat-down search at a San Diego airport has become an Internet sensation in the debate weighing fliers' security versus their privacy. (Nov. 15)

"We always have to look out for yesterday's threats," he said. "Shame on us if there's ever a repeat of 9/11 or the shoe bomber or the underwear bomber, if we haven't hardened our targets."

New layersof security

Some critics have given the labyrinthine airport security system the nickname "security theater," saying it is riddled with loopholes. Airport workers are not screened daily, making them capable of passing into secure areas with weapons. Lines inside the terminal are vulnerable to a would-be suicide bomber. Packages sent as cargo go through a comparatively light screening process - one that is being tightened but was exploited by al-Qaeda operatives in October when they sent bombs hidden in printer cartridges.

"After 9/11, the attacks failed because of the poor skills of the terrorists rather than anything we've done," said Rafi Ron, former security director at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport. "In every one of these later attacks, the security checkpoint was overcome by terrorists who took advantage of the loopholes."

For al-Qaeda, forcing the United States to continually add layers of air security amounts to victory in its own right. "If your opponent covers his right cheek, slap him on his left," its writers gloated in the organization's magazine, Inspire. "The continuous attempts that followed 9-11 . . . have forced the West to spend billions of dollars to defend its airplanes." The strategy, they wrote, is one of "a thousand cuts" to "bleed the enemy to death."

The repeated attempts have pushed U.S. officials into a costly pattern of trial and error, testing what works - and what the public will accept. Since 2002, the TSA budget has totaled $57.2 billion - about what the government spends on intelligence programs in a single year. Still, there have been obvious aviation excesses.

Machines, such as the $160,000-a-pop "puffer portals" introduced in 2004, have been introduced and then jettisoned. The color-coded terrorism alert program is on its way out. Britain plans to abandon its restrictions on liquids in April, and U.S. officials say they would like to do the same, although they question whether it's too soon.

Other changes may soon follow. Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) wants to replace TSA workers with private screeners, as 17 airports nationwide have done, to make them more efficient and accountable. Others would shift to a system that incorporates more passenger data into the screening system, on top of the new identity markers - including a passenger's sex and birthday - that airlines recently started to gather.

More immediately, Pistole said he wants to see modifications to the scanning machines that caused such an uproar, "so you see a stick figure of the blurred image versus the, quote, 'naked photos,' " he said. The new technology is being tested but yields too many false positives to be used, he said.

Even the system's fiercest advocates acknowledge its imperfections, saying alterations are almost certain. "Nothing's perfect. The strategy is evolving, and it's a work in progress," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), the incoming chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "We're fighting the last war; we're trying to anticipate the next war. There's inconvenience. Some things have worked; others haven't. There's no silver bullet."

He added: "But let's face it: We haven't been attacked. If anyone back on September 12, 2001, would have said we'd go eight, nine years without a successful aviation attack, no one would have believed them."

Fighting the last war

Whether the new patchwork system deserves credit for the stability of the past nine years is up for debate. Although none of the dozens of suspected terrorists arrested in the United States during that time were caught at aviation checkpoints, it is impossible to know how many were deterred by airport security from even trying. Several took aim at softer targets: New York subways, as in the case of Najibullah Zazi, or a car in Times Square, as in the case of Faisal Shahzad.

But would today's mechanisms even block a future Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab? The question troubles security experts, who see persistent flaws - from gaps at checkpoints for flights originating overseas, as Abdulmutallab's did, to problems with the way full-body scanners work.


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