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5 Ways to Fix the TSA Pat Down Problem

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A lot has been said about the TSA’s new body scanner/pat down policy, and most of it has been negative. Lots of people, myself included, have written or spoken at length about why the policies are bad, and many have called on the TSA to ditch the scanners and pat downs entirely.

OK, but what should the TSA do instead? It’s a difficult question to answer, but a crucial part of the conversation. After all, if we’re going to criticize, we should be able to offer solutions or alternatives, right?

To that end, I reached out to several airline security experts and critics, and asked them what the TSA should do instead of scanning and patting down travelers. Here are five ideas of where to start:

Dr. Andrew R. Thomas, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of Transportation Security; assistant professor of international business, University of Akron: “At its core, the transportation security strategy of the United States is overwhelmingly a law enforcement one. That is, what we do at our airports is inherently reactive and designed to prevent the last attack. This is the rationale for the ‘naked x-rays’ and new ‘pat down.’ The remedy for this bad course is to change the operational mission of the TSA and focus on risk reduction through pro-active measures such as broader intelligence gathering, knowledge management, and enhanced coordination with international partners. This will require leadership from the President and Congress to take the emphasis of the TSA away from being simply a passenger screening organization.

Unfortunately, this does not appear on the horizon. And, with al qaeda having successfully tested and deployed the body-cavity bomb, there is a day in our future where multiple passengers on multiple planes will be blown up. Given the current trajectory of our current aviation security strategy, the response will ‘logically’ be the body-cavity searches of millions of innocent passengers. And then, maybe here, the necessary changes will finally occur.”

Patrick Smith, pilot and author, Ask the Pilot: “[Scanners] are part of what has become an unsustainable security strategy: That is, treating each and every passenger … as potential terrorists, and attempting to inspect their bodies and belongings for each and every possible weapon. This simply isn’t a realistic approach in a country where more than two million people fly daily.

The body scanners are part of an arms race.  First came Richard Reid and so we all need to take our shoes off; then came the underwear bomber and so now we’re body-scanned and/or groped?  What might be next?  We cannot protect ourselves from every conceivable threat, and we need to acknowledge that while focusing on a security strategy that is efficient, reasonable, and effective, and in tune with the hierarchy of threat. What we have right now is none of those things. We are literally strip-searching the entire flying public, from preschoolers to pilots, and rifling through their bags for things—knives and scissors—that are harmless in the first place. All of this while freight from overseas goes uninspected for bombs and explosives.”

Robert Poole, Director of Transportation Policy, Reason Foundation: “Intrusive screening of everyone is inherent in the TSA’s current approach, which treats all air travelers as equally likely to be a threat. The only feasible way to remove body-scanning (or the intrusive pat down alternative) as standard procedure is to change TSA’s screening model to one that is risk-based. In practice, that would mean separating air travelers (other than those on the No-Fly list, who are automatically denied passage) into three basic groups:

1. Trusted Travelers, who have passed a background check and are issued a biometric ID card that proves (when they arrive at the checkpoint) that they are the person who was cleared. This group would include cockpit crews and anyone holding a government security clearance, anyone already a member of DHS’s Global Entry, Sentri, and Nexus, and anyone who applied and was accepted into a new Trusted Traveler program). These people would get to bypass regular security lanes upon having their biometric card checked, subject only to random screening of a small fraction.

2. High-risk travelers, either those about whom no information is known or who are flagged by the various DHS intelligence lists as warranting ‘Selectee’ status. They would be the only ones facing body-scanner or pat down as mandatory, routine screening.

3. Ordinary travelers—basically everyone else, who would go through metal detector and put carry-ons through 2-D X-ray machines. They would not have to remove shoes or jackets, and could travel with liquids. A small fraction of this group would be subject to random ‘Selectee’-type screening.

This type of risk-based screening would focus TSA resources on the travelers most needing scrutiny, by reducing the use of resources on low-risk travelers. It would also save considerable sums in both screener payroll and equipment costs; no more body scanners would be purchased, since TSA already owns enough to use only for the secondary screening needed for the above program.

As for TSA claims that Trusted Traveler would be too risky, they cannot make that claim with a straight face, for two reasons. First, their parent agency DHS operates the three border-crossing programs noted above (Global Entry, Sentri, and Nexus) which operate on exactly the same principle. Second, TSA itself applies this principle for the hundreds of thousands of people who work at airports and need access to secure areas to do their jobs. Those people must pass an FBI criminal history background check, which entitles them to an ID card giving them unescorted access to secure airport areas. Some of these people have access to planes on the tarmac, which means they could do damaging things to those planes. Yet TSA accepts this risk trade-off.”

Fred Gevalt, Executive Producer, Please Remove Your Shoes: “Since we released our film, I’m asked quite frequently for a solution. Today my message to TSA would be simple: ‘Stop it. Just stop it.’ TSA has become a government jobs program. Give them all shovels and let them repair America’s roads. We had prior knowledge of Pan Am 103, the jihadists of 9/11, the shoe bomber and the Christmas bomber. We need better application of intelligence. We don’t need the new airport routine. Let Americans travel freely at the airport, and let the CIA, NSA, and FBI do their jobs. We can handle risk. After all, isn’t this the land of the free and the home of the brave?

I think that TSA has arrived at the end of the road. There is no systematized, conclusive way to scan, vet, or guarantee whatever it is they want to guarantee. They need to start profiling, where profiling is not racial as much as profiling those passengers they don’t know anything about. Having said that, it will require brighter people, so they will have to abandon their hiring practices of advertising on pizza boxes and gasoline pumps. Follow the Israeli model!”

Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel, American Civil Liberties Union: “We need to focus more on explosives, less on looking for items like knives and box cutters that can’t really cause much harm. [The TSA] already has bomb-swabbing machines on hand, which can detect bomb-making material on hands and clothes. These are much less invasive than the scanners and pat downs, and actually address what is really the main threat against airlines.

More broadly, we need to have a real discussion about comparing the benefits and costs of our current system. Unfortunately, it’s a little late now, with so much money spent and so many body scanners deployed, but we’re not even sure how effective these scanners are at detecting bomb-making material. The Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the machines hadn’t been adequately field tested, and questioned if the machines would have stopped the Christmas Day bomb attack.

Basically, [airline safety] is a long-term issue, and it requires a process that focuses on true security threats while taking civil liberties into account.”

Readers, what do you think about these ideas? What do you think the TSA should do?

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