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Monday, May 14, 2012

AIR TRAVEL SECURITY: THE NEW NORMAL


The events of September 11, 2001 forever changed air travel and the changes have come continuously and not without controversy. The creation of the Transportation Security Administration was a massive undertaking and the standards and procedures for screening millions of U.S. air passengers daily, has been an experiment in progress. Strangely, the failed attempt by Richard Reid to ignite explosive material in his shoes while on a flight inbound to the U.S in December, 2001, just three months after the World Trade Center disaster, may have resulted in causing more perceived inconvenience than fear, as the screening process was further complicated by requiring all passengers to put their shoes through the x-ray equipment. Initial, and understandable, fears associated with commercial flying diminished over time as new plane hijackings by terrorists failed to occur and passengers and passenger rights advocates came to view the new screening and restrictions on luggage contents as arbitrary, unnecessary and in some cases irrational. Numerous examples of inconsistent and nonsensical behavior on the part of screeners supported this mindset.

Still there has been a great deal of false hysteria as claims to “privacy rights” and “ unconstitutional and unreasonable search” were levied. Some individuals claimed that the ghost like figures appearing on early scanning screens were “virtual strip searches” and the object of leering groups of men in back rooms. These charges were demonstrably false but others, ignoring the fact of the voluntary nature of flying and the implied consent when purchasing a ticket, as well as the realities of the security threat, were offended by most of the screening process. It all seemed to come to a head with the 2010 “If you touch my junk” threat by self described libertarian John Tyner. While patting down octogenarian grandmothers in wheel chairs makes little sense, claims by some that security measures should be relaxed because “no bombs have been found” by these procedures, also makes no sense since the purpose of the system is both discovery and deterrence. That the tactics of the terrorists has shifted from hi-jacking, as cockpit doors have been secured and some pilots are now armed, to abandonment of shoe bombs as shoes were examined, to underwear bombs, and now to non-metallic bombs, is clear evidence that deterrence works.

The TSA has made adjustments to address some passenger complaints. “Backscatter” full body scan equipment is being replaced with Millimeter Wave units which create a facsimile outline of the human body without anatomically accurate features. Older “backscatter” equipment still in use is being outfitted with software to produce the same type images. As the owner of metal knees I get patted down more than scanned and I have found that pat downs are brief and if done properly are hardly objectionable, certainly not anything like the “sexual assaults” claimed by Tyner and others. Still, occasional dumbness and/or arrogance on the part of some of the TSA's 43,000 plus screeners is inevitable and frustration on the part of travelers is understandable. There is certainly room for improvement. Current pay scales for primary level TSA screeners range from $29,000 to $44,000 per year. This correlates with pre-employment qualifications of a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate, “or” experience in the field of “security”. Such experience is very broad indeed and would not be much of a recommendation if the former “security” employee had neither a high school diploma nor a GED.

However, the terrorist threat to commercial aircraft has not diminished. This month's (May) defeat of a plot to have a suicide bomber blow up a plane en-route from from Yemen to the U.S. should make that clear. The geopolitical environment as described in the Gallup World Poll's “Who Speaks for Islam?”(2008) survey of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens in 35 nations with predominate or significant Muslim populations offers a reality check in terms of attitudes. The poll claims to represent the attitudes of 90% of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. The “good news” is that only 7% of respondents fall into the arbitrarily defined “radical or extremist” category. Those falling into this group are also described as “potential sources for recruitment or support of terrorist groups.” Their answer to a specific question was that the 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were “completely justified”.

However percentages can be deceiving. Ninety percent of 1.3 billion Muslims is 1.17 billion individuals and a radical/extremist component of 7% equals 81,900,000. The highest concentrations of this group were found, unsurprisingly, in the hot spots of the Middle East and in Pakistan.
The poll certainly does not suggest an active terrorist cohort of this magnitude but it does suggest that a dedicated fringe in the thousands is entirely realistic, as well as a significant recruitment base for the foreseeable future. Even 60% of the large “non-radical”majority of those polled view the United States “unfavorably”.

As the private intelligence company Stratfor recently observed, terrorist attacks against commercial air travel are still a priority among some Al Qaeda operatives, and jihadists are taking notice of, and adjusting to, changing security procedures. Since the failed “shoe bomber” attempt in 2001, intelligence agencies have uncovered a 2006 plot to bomb as many as ten commercial aircraft in simultaneous attacks using liquid explosives; the 2009 “Christmas underwear bomber” whose bomb failed to detonate over Detroit; the 2010 discovery of printers with ink cartridges containing explosives being shipped to the U.S. via UPS and FedEx cargo planes, and the aforementioned May, 2012 attempt which a was an updated version of an “underwear bomb” made with no metallic parts. This bomb may not have been detected by electronic scanners but might have been detected by a pat down if the bomber had not been a double agent who turned the bomb over to U.S. and British intelligence operatives in Yemen.

Al Qaeda in Yemen's (AQY) top bomb maker, Hassan al-Asiri, remains at large. He is certain to be sharing his skills with others. Despite the objections of some passengers who apparently discount the threat, polls show that a majority of the American public (80%) support the scans and 50% support the use of pat downs. Still, as terrorists continue to develop bombs that might defeat the scans, manual screening may have to be reemphasized and travelers will have to make choices. 

Post Script:   On Friday, May 11, 2012, former Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize winner, 89 yr. old Henry Kissinger who was in a wheel chair, was "patted down" at NYC's La Guardia airport. Current and former senior federal govt. officials clearly should be provided with special identification to avoid this wasted time and effort.


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