Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why American Airport Security Is Really So Horrendous

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By Barry Rubin

Security checks at American airports have become the most controversial topic in the United States. This debate is so full of mistaken assumptions and misleading ideas that it is hard to know where to start in analyzing it.

Basically, it can be described as follows: Let's intensively search fifteen million at random--worse, using silly profiling guidelines--in hope of finding one or two terrorists who, if they exist at all, are almost certainly using an innovative tactic that will get by our procedures.

Let’s consider the terrorist threat within the United States. The opening point must be that the threat of terrorism on airplanes within the United States is very low in frequency. That doesn’t mean a successful attack might not be horrendous, but that the number of attacks the terrorists can mount is going to be small.

Ask yourself this question: How many terrorists will try this year to get on board internal U.S. plane flights? The answer might be zero and it is almost certainly lower than five.

Why is this? It is hard to mount a sophisticated attack from within the United States in the post-September 11 period. The number of people ready to be suicide terrorists in this manner is limited in the U.S. population, as is the number of good bomb-makers. Terrorists also have many other targets and, indeed, the greatest danger is an individual attack using simple technology on very easy targets, as happened at Fort Hood and on many other occasions.

The goal of U.S. internal airport security, then, is to be so impressive that it scares off terrorists, to catch any terrorists who are trying to board, and to persuade the citizenry that the situation is well in hand and that the experts know what they are doing.

Yet here’s the reality. At a railroad station in California, one of my colleagues was asked by a security screener to show his driver’s license. He started laughing and asked, “Why?”

The guard said back sarcastically, “Haven’t you heard of September 11?”

But that’s why my colleague was laughing. All of the September 11 hijackers did have valid drivers’ licenses. And a terrorist who is going to blow up something can easily get a phony driver’s license. Thus, asking for such a document makes the guard (and the public) feel better but it is utterly worthless.

No doubt, the U.S. government will claim that it has achieved the goal of keeping terrorists out of airports. But this is misleading. The TSA has literally never caught a terrorist at an airport. And why go through an airport nowadays with any reasonable level of security when you can look for relatively unguarded targets? That’s what terrorists do.

What is the strategy of a smart warrior? Get his enemy to send all of his troops to guard someplace and then hit at a weak point somewhere else.

For good reason, then, the terrorists have moved to other methods and targets. Attackers have boarded planes outside the United States and put bombs on cargo planes.

As an experienced counterterrorism expert put it: "If our national security professionals bothered to read the recent Al-Qaida strategic publications they would see that the shift in Al-Qaida strategy makes most of this security theater worthless. Will the terrorists take another shot at a plane full of Americans at some point? Probably, but just like last year the threat for the next period will come from an inbound foreign flight."

If the terrorists have shifted their priorities why should the budget, personnel, stringency of an abandoned tactic be continually intensified?

In short, this massive security force and procedure is costing hundreds of millions of dollars and harassing tens of millions of passengers in a futile attempt to locate possibly one or two terrorists a year.

One terrorist puts a bomb in his shoes that doesn't work. Forever after, all shoes must be checked for millions of people? Terrorists plan an aborted attack using a gel. Forever after all liquids and gels must be banned and thus seized from millions of people?

When dealing with counterterrorism, resources will always be limited. If huge resources are thrown away on low-quality, ineffective, and misdirected tasks that means less attention can be paid to the real threats.

That’s why the Underpants Bomber and the Shoe Bomber and also the Times Square Bomber, and yes even the Fort Hood shooter, and others were not caught by the security system. It was too busy paying for people to pat down or x-ray Americans randomly.

People in authority don’t want to admit this because if there ever is a successful attack on a plane they don’t want to be quoted as having been wrong. But read that paragraph above, it’s the truth.

Indeed, the response is: If we don't have this strong security what will happen if a plane blows up? Everyone will ask who let this through. Prediction: The next time there's a real threat or--may it not happen--a plane blows up the investigation will discover that the current system wouldn't have stopped it. That's not speculation: it's what has happened every time before.

Checking passengers is about the passengers themselves. If the system doesn’t do one kind of (effective) profiling it does another (silly profiling). I used to be stopped in the United States for special inspection every single time. Why? Because I was loyal to my Jerusalem travel agent, who arranged my flights. Buying a ticket outside the United States was profiled as likely to be a terrorist. So in the “dangerous” line I was usually behind the Chinese grandmother.

There are other such profiling rules like watching someone carefully if they buy a one-way ticket (knowing things like this, terrorists can afford to buy round-trip and lose their money posthumously on the second ticket), having a relatively new passport, and so on. Profiling, then, goes on but it is just the wrong kind of profiling. What is the right kind? Well, step one is to look at non-citizens who come from certain countries.

It is no exaggeration to say that the great majority of the TSA system is a waste of time, checking documented American citizens who have no motive for commiting terrorism. Put them through the metal-detecting portal, have them put their possessions on the belt that goes through the X-rated x-ray machine. That's enough.

Here's another counterterrorist truth:

Any security system that isn’t completely stupid—and likely to be ineffective--must put the bulk of its resources into looking at those most likely to carry out an attack.

This is not “racial” profiling since these people don’t constitute a race and aren’t being profiled because of their race any more than examining Germans in the United States during World War Two was a racial issue or looking most carefully at people from Communist states during the Cold War was racism. Yes, the Islamists will try to disguise themselves but that’s not so easy for them, though using Western converts is sometimes an alternative.

Does this inconvenience people who may seem to be Muslims, Middle Easterners, excessively nervous, not being able to account for themselves in a logical fashion, or having something suspicious in their bags? Sure it does. But does it contribute to the safety of the passengers to ignore all of these points and inconvenience one hundred times more people? Whether or not this accords with U.S. law is not my department. If it's impossible, or wont happen for political reasons, at least have no doubt that this is the right way--and the safer way--to do things.

Rather than change and improve its methods, one trick used by the U.S. government is to reclassify certain attacks as not terrorism at all. For once the government admits that the problem derives from revolutionary Islamism, an ideology whose constituency has certain characteristics, it becomes much harder to line up everybody for potential pat-downs and x-ray machines which, by the way, don't even detect plastic explosives but only metal, thus further reducing their value.

If I could use the specific, detailed examples given to me by friends involved in U.S. counterterrorism efforts about what's going on behind the scenes you would be shocked at how bad the ruling experts are. They really believe that everyone is a threat and there's no sense singling out potential Islamist radicals as the most likely terrorists. Since the Fort Hood shootings, the U.S. army has made zero progress improving its understanding of the threat and is still denying that radical Islamic sentiments might have anything to do with such attacks.

Many  government experts aren't just against profiling on moral or political grounds: they honestly think it is totally unnecessary and that random screening is better.

Here's another point related to this kind of official blindness: Counterterrorism should never be in the hands of a bureaucracy. That work requires people who are very flexible, think outside the box, and are not tied down by institutional interests. The larger the bureaucracy the more wasteful and inefficient it is…which leads us to the Department of Homeland Security.

What's needed is the kind of people who do special operations in the military, not those obsessed with forms and procedures. The latter are the kind of people who can say, after the Underpants Bomber got through the security and failed only because his bomb fizzled and the other passengers jumped him, that this proves the system worked.

If someone who thinks like that is in charge of protecting you, you are in serious trouble.
Critics of the existing system often cite Israel’s security procedures. The United States can learn a lot from these but, at the same time, there are also important differences. That’s another article.

But here’s the single most important and most easily adapted lesson:

Israel cannot afford the U.S. approach because it must have a system that really does stop terrorism, not just fool people into thinking everything's okay.

In contrast, the United States can afford a gigantic, expensive system that achieves almost nothing, since the level of terrorism on passenger planes leaving U.S. airports would remain the same even if the TSA and its toys were to be cut back by, say, three-quarters or more. 

The exception on this issue, as I’ve indicated above, is that it is worthwhile to invest in a high-level of security for flights arriving from outside the United States. Yet here, too, the focus brought by realistic profiling is needed.

As we saw recently, the terrorists are now working on sending cheap bombs on international cargo flights, which have not been fully checked by security. Now there will be a billion-dollar defensive program in this area as well.

So is the TSA going to check each railroad, bus, airport, and highway around the clock on the chance of finding some terrorist passing through at the same time as an army officer who spoke openly of Jihad was ignored until he opened fire? Will there come a point where this all becomes too onerous, time-consuming, and expensive?

Perhaps the ultimate weapon of terrorists is not to blow up America but to bankrupt it.

Is a government and establishment proclaiming itself horrified at the idea of checking documents when someone has been stopped for due cause by a police officer—the Arizona law—to see if that person is an illegal alien going to authorize stopping and searching of any American citizen for much less of a reason?

Ultimately, the current airport security system is crazy not only because it is excessive in terms of inconvenience or violating privacy but perhaps most of all because it is a terrible way to guard against terrorism. Of course, the public can be propitiated by little changes and big promises. Countering the terrorists requires something much different.

Now if you want to read something terrific that shows the devastating failures of U.S. counterterrorism policy, check out Patrick Poole, "Failures of the U.S. Government on the Domestic Islamist Threat."

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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