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Intrusive Airport Searches Miss Point

By Charles V. Peña
November 9, 2010

Editor’s Note: Rather than treating the cause for so much Middle Eastern resentment toward the United States – its interventionist actions in the region – American security officials continue to ramp up intrusive searches of passengers at airport terminals.

However, as the Independent Institute’s Charles V. Peña notes in this guest essay, the treatment of the symptoms from Muslim anger over U.S. foreign policy will never catch up with the evolving tactics of determined terrorists:

Security guru Bruce Schneier defines the term security theater as “security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security.

“An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards.” 

Unfortunately, much of what the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) amounts to just that.

Last week, we seemed to have dodged a bullet when two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were discovered aboard cargo aircraft.

Anyone who has flown recently knows that their checked-in luggage is screened for explosives. But more than just checked-in luggage is in the luggage compartment on passenger aircraft, which carry about 16 percent of all cargo that comes into, leaves, and travels within the United States.

Although all cargo on passenger flights is supposed to be screened, the reality is that it isn’t.

According to Steve Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “Even though it is subject to the law, it is not yet being screened 100 percent. TSA is still devising a system to screen this cargo.”

So the bombs disguised as toner cartridges could well have ended up on a commercial passenger flight.

You can imagine how much safer I feel knowing TSA is now conducting more aggressive pat downs of passengers. TSA contends that “pat downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives.”

Remember the Christmas underwear bomber? You know, the guy who managed to light his pants on fire. You can thank him for the pat downs.

In response to the possibility of a passenger carrying explosives underneath clothing, TSA is now using back-scatter body imaging devices that capture an image of your naked self, including your genitals (no wonder the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) calls back-scatter body imaging “virtual strip searches”).

Passengers who don’t want to be virtual strip searched will be aggressively patted down instead — including having their genitals and breasts touched. (You’ll also receive a pat down if you set off a metal detector or if the back-scatter imaging detects something suspicious.)

But the underwear bomber is so last year. In other words, we keep trying to prevent the last attack.

After 9/11, we focused on preventing would-be hijackers from bringing knives and box cutters onto airplanes (even though secure cockpit doors essentially made it impossible to breach the cockpit without a battering ram — which would be too large to fit either in the overhead compartment or underneath the seat).

After Richard Reid, aka the shoe bomber, we were forced to take our shoes off to pass through security. So now we’re focused on stopping another underwear bomber.

Terrorists, however, are adaptive. Erect a barrier and they won’t try to go through it — instead they’ll try to find a way around it.

So a smart terrorist intent on smuggling a bomb aboard a plane would hide an IED in a body cavity (and I can’t help but wonder about using breast implants to hide explosive material — even a pat down isn’t going to feel anything unusual or suspicious).

But why even try to bring a bomb on your person when you can FedEx or UPS it? (NOTE: Both FedEx and UPS say their screening practices exceed federal regulations — but that isn’t necessarily the case when they have to rely on contract carriers, such as in Yemen where the ink toner cartridge bombs originated.)

And while we’re rightly concerned about a cargo bomb aboard a passenger plane, we should be equally concerned about a bomb on a cargo-only aircraft. Even though fewer people would be killed, a bomb exploding on a cargo aircraft could result in putting air commerce on hold.

But according to a GAO audit, as of earlier this year, TSA had not approved the use of devices to screen large pallets or containers of cargo (and much of air cargo is palletized). Moreover, a significant amount of air cargo is exempted from screening if it is in shrink-wrapped bundles on the assumption that the shipper knows the contents are secure.

Because we fret over the possibility of a terrorist blowing up an airplane, we are all too willing to accept the measures put in place in the name of better security, such as invasive and aggressive pat downs.

For example, Rob Newman of Los Angeles supports the TSA’s attempts to improve security: “I’m all for whatever is most effective in ensuring the plane I get on is safe.” Jay Burns of the Village of Loch Lloyd, Missouri, agrees: “If this stops a terrorist, I am in favor.”

But even airport security itself is security theater. The long waiting lines to get through airport security are a perfect terrorist target. A terrorist could simply blow himself or herself up while standing in line. The effect on closing down an airport and halting air travel would probably be the same as blowing up an airplane.

As long as we keep dealing with symptoms rather than the problem, much of what we do will be security theater.

We need to be honest about and willing to address the core issues of why America has become a target for terrorism. And perhaps the most important issue that we still refuse to acknowledge is an interventionist U.S. foreign policy — practiced by Democrats and Republicans alike — that breeds resentment and hatred in the Muslim world.

Charles V. Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.          

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