Rand Paul's TSA moment: airport patdowns around the world

Sen. Rand Paul says US airport security officials are invasive without being effective. How are air passengers treated in other countries?

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
Passengers queue up for a security check at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, last week. As US Sen. Rand Paul's TSA moment sets off a minor debate on US airport security, what do airport security people do in other countries?

When US Sen. Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky set off the scanner at Nashville airport and refused to submit to a more intimate pat-down by Transportation Safety Administration officers, he set off a minor debate about the efficacy of security at US airports.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, American support for aggressive security checks was strong, but in the past decade, bipartisan complaints about the TSA have begun to mount. But while Americans may be getting annoyed at all that wanding, patting, and scanning, there have been very few security incidents at US airports over the past decade. And compared with the intense scrutiny other countries give travelers at their own airports -- in India or England, Israel or Indonesia – it’s fair to ask how the US methods compare.  

In a recent congressional report, “A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform,” Congress noted that the TSA has grown into a massive agency, spending $57 billion over the past decade, with a workforce of 65,000 employees. But there have been more than 25,000 security breaches at US airports, and 17 “known terrorists” have managed to travel on 24 different occasions through airports monitored by TSA. Fewer than half of the US’s 35 largest airports have complete in-line explosive detection systems to screen baggage.

For Senator Paul, the TSA’s increasing invasiveness is a problem.

“Is it too much to ask to have a little dignity when we are traveling?” Senator Paul told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer yesterday. “I feel that our dignity is being compromised, but I don’t feel more safe.” He urged the TSA to be more selective, with fewer pat-downs of babies and the infirm elderly, and more pat-downs of international travelers, for instance.

So what do airport security people do in other countries?

In Israel, airport security personnel are famous for focusing on the “human factor,” using racial profiling to single out those who seem to have Arabic names or features for extra attention. All passengers are asked their purpose for traveling to Israel, and extensive and repeated questions about their travel agenda to trip up those who might be lying.

Israel has reason to be cautious, of course. Numerous terrorist groups within the region, and even a few countries, have made it part of their mission statement to wipe Israel off the face of the planet. Israeli security may be repressive, but it is effective. The last hijacking of Israel’s state airline, El Al, occurred in July 1969; the last successful airline related attack was in 1986, when a bomb-laden suitcase exploded at the airport terminal, injuring 13.

In Britain, airports follow many of the same security measures that US airport security personnel use, mostly because Britain is a major transit route for air traveling leaving from and entering the US. As a result, British airports require passengers to place all metal items in a tray for scanning; remove all liquids more than 100 milliliters; remove laptops from briefcases for scanning; remove shoes and belts; and require all pre-flight passenger information to be passed along to US airport security officials.

This has started to become a little annoying, British airport officials say, and it doesn’t do much to deter terrorists.

"It is clear that the terrorist is not deterred from planning and carrying out these types of attack,” Ian Hutcheson, British Airport Authority’s head of security, was quoted as saying by the Guardian. “This is partly due to the fact that some of the things we do are predictable and our challenge now is to identify different ways of delivering security."

European airports, by contrast, rely on national militaries and private security companies to maintain security. Countries such as France and Spain, which have had lengthy experience with violent terrorist groups, focus on extensive ID checks and screenings to sort through possible terrorist threats on airlines, and rather less on pat-downs.

As a reporter traveling throughout Africa and South Asia over the past decade, I found there was often an inverse relationship between airport security methods and the actual conditions of risk. There was no pat-down for my flight from Kabul to Mazar-e Sharif, for instance, during a trip to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Security was a be-turbaned Taliban fighter with a Kalashnikov, sitting in aisle 10. (He did not wear a seatbelt, but given the age of the Russian-made aircraft, it’s possible that he didn’t have one.)

It probably bears mentioning that the people charged with keeping US airports safe are among the poorest paid of all US federal employees, with an entry level salary starting at about $25,000 a year. If they appear to be grumpy, there might be a reason.

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