Why more airport security doesn't stop terrorist attacks

Airport security measures change in response to every plot, and the Christmas Day terrorist attack is no different. But use of screening technologies hasn't kept up with new terrorist methods.

Mike Segar/Reuters
An airline passenger walks towards a screening station as a US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official looks on at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey, on Tuesday.

Just as with previous terror attacks, the failed Christmas Day bombing is already changing air travel security, from more pat downs – Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hid explosives in his underpants – to in-flight restrictions on laptops.

The changes follow a post-9/11 pattern of introducing new screening methods in response to new kinds of attack – scanning shoes after the 2001 shoe bomber attack and insisting on 3 oz. plastic bottles after a foiled 2006 plot to blow up British airlines. But aviation experts say there are limits to throwing hardware at the problem, even if high-tech fixes could be developed quickly.

“We’re still focusing on keeping prohibited items off planes, but that calculus is working against us,” says Andrew Thomas, an aviation security expert at the University of Akron in Ohio. “The terrorists are constantly developing more sophisticated attacks. They are hyper-motivated, they’re not going to stop, and they have a fetish for aviation security.”

Screening technology can’t keep up

Since the 9/11 attacks, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Department of Homeland Security have spent nearly $800 million trying to deploy higher-tech checkpoint screening technologies. These range from an explosives trace-detection portal, halted in 2006 after cost overruns, to scanners for bottled liquids, shoes, casts, and prostheses, as well as a Whole Body Imager. None of these systems have been deployed yet, according to an October 2009 report to Congress by the Government Accountability Office.

Meanwhile, the range of explosive devices that terrorists are developing is outstripping the ability of screening systems to catch them. Last August, an alleged suicide bomber who had explosives implanted in his body injured Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Even controversial full body scans don’t pick up such hidden devices, Mr. Thomas says.

“To think we’re going to be able to detect all these IEDs [improvised explosive devices] at check points is futile,” he says.

New profiling methods

Instead, Thomas says authorities should focus on blocking access to the people most deemed to be a threat, which requires more effective profiling and challenging the TSA approach “that everybody who comes to the airport is treated the same – as a potential terrorist, until they are cleared.”

Cribbing from the Israeli airline model, airline safety specialists are implementing a wide range of behavioral profiling techniques.

“With racial profiling, you’re looking at the wrong thing. Don’t look at race or clothes, look at the person behind the eyes,” says Terry Sheridan, a corporate fraud analyst in Malanga, Australia, who consults with airlines on emotional profiling. “There are flaws there that most people would ignore. Once you’ve got a flaw or an inconsistency or a lie, that’s when all the alarm bells ring.”

Some critics are already calling for making it easier to move individuals from the broad Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) list to the Terrorist Watchlist and the most restrictive "No Fly" list. After a complaint from his father, Mr. Abdulmutallab was added to the TIDE list, a broad database of 500,000 maintained by the National Counterterrorism Center.

The White House says that there wasn’t enough specific and credible information to warrant moving Abdulmutallah to the Terrorist Watchlist. President Obama has ordered a review of watchlist protocols and screening procedures.

Intelligence experts familiar with the watchlists say they raise tough issues including the cost of more intensive human profiling and screening.

“Of the half million entries on the TIDE list, there no doubt are many, many others that do not identify a real terrorist but that provide more of a basis for follow-up than one father’s warning about a wayward son,” says Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA analyst and director of graduate studies at the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The cost to civil liberties

The Terrorist Watchlist – a step beyond the TIDE list – is made up of approximately 400,000 people. The No Fly list contains some 3,400 people, of which 170 are Americans, according to the FBI. Abdulmutallab’s case could trigger moves to lower the threshold for inclusion on the terrorist watchlist, a change that could affect many innocents.

“This is not just a matter of retrospective discussion of a single case,” says Mr. Pillar. “It is a matter of clear rules that are not going to swing back and forth like a pendulum after each newsworthy incident. And it is a matter of recognizing and accepting the downsides in terms of false positives and innocent people getting harassed.”

Civil libertarians are already gearing up for a fight over this issue, as Congress and the Obama administration review security procedures.

“The consequences of being mistakenly added to a terror watch list can be more severe than simply missing a plane,” said the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement after the attack. “Law enforcement routinely run names against the watchlists for matters as mundane as traffic stops, and innocent individuals may be harassed even if they don’t attempt to fly.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) renewed calls Sunday for security personnel, passengers, and flight crews to avoid ethnic and religious profiling. They said two “Middle Eastern” men were recently removed from a US Airways flight in Phoenix and questioned after a passenger overheard them speaking in a foreign language. They were later released. “While everyone supports robust airline security measures, racial and religious profiling are in fact counterproductive and can lead to a climate of insecurity and fear,” said CAIR spokesman Ibrahim Hooper.


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