TSA screeners have their hands full

Ed Ross Contributor
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U.S. Transportation Security Agency (TSA) screeners literally have their hands full these days groping the flying public. Travelers who refuse screening by newly installed full-body “naked” scanners are subjected to invasive pat-downs that include touching children’s and adults’ genitals and women’s breasts. Is all this really necessary, or are there better ways to keep terrorists from blowing up airplanes?

The terrorist threat to commercial passenger aircraft remains a clear and present danger. Would-be suicide bombers like Umar Abdulmutallab, who attempted to bring down Northwest Flight 253 over Michigan on Christmas Day 2009 with a bomb in his underwear, worry Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials greatly. The classified-intelligence reports they read every day only heighten their concerns. They’re the reasons full-body scanners have been installed at airports across the country, even though some experts question their usefulness — they can’t detect things hidden in body cavities.

Failed attempts recently by al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen to blow up multiple aircraft in the U.S. carrying commercial cargo remind us suicide bombers aren’t the only threat. Interestingly, it wasn’t the terrorists’ incompetence or airport-security measures that foiled them. It was a tip from Saudi Arabian intelligence officials. Had the Saudis not alerted us, U.S. government experts believe some or all of the bombs would have gone off in flight.

Terrorists haven’t succeeded in blowing up or crashing a commercial aircraft in the United States since 9/11; but they are determined to do so. Their repeated attempts make a strong argument for full-body scanners, intrusive pat-downs and other stringent security measures.

The most stringent security measures imaginable would be all well and good if Americans and others who transit U.S. airports were sheep or mindless drones out of an Orwellian novel and would acquiesce to whatever the federal government demanded, but they’re not. Concerns about privacy, radiation exposure, and TSA screeners touching their and their children’s private parts have caused aircrews and passengers to “opt out” of screening by the full-body scanners and then complain about the “degrading” and “humiliating” pat-downs. Making things worse are accusations that the intrusive pat-downs are more about conditioning the flying public to accept the full-body scanners than they are about security.

Add to these concerns reports about lax TSA background checks on TSA employees. Judicial Watch has reported that “The TSA’s national background check failed to detect the fake Social Security numbers and other bogus documents provided by the illegal immigrants to obtain clearance.” This doesn’t inspire the flying public’s confidence in the TSA or its employees that place their hands on them or their children; and it makes me wonder if al Qaeda isn’t working overtime to embed sleeper agents in the agency.

DHS Secretary Janet “Big Sis” Napolitano is taking steps to head off the growing revolt against the scanners and pat-downs. She’s meeting with travel industry representatives, hoping to convince them the scanners and pat-downs are necessary, and TSA will likely review its policy toward children. But they’ll have to do more than that.

Terrorism isn’t just about killing us; it’s about forcing us to adopt so many intrusive security measures that they have harmful effects on our mobility, our commerce and our peace of mind. The harmful effects on frequent flyers of the cumulative radiation from the new scanners and having your genitals or breasts groped in an airport security line are forms of indirect terrorism. Al-Qaeda terrorists, no doubt, are delighted at all the trouble they’re causing even without blowing up an aircraft.

Over-reliance on intrusive security measures principally because they are politically correct and avoid profiling doesn’t make us more secure. Profiling is a time-honored law enforcement tool. Unless we adopt reasonable profiling standards based on risk assessment, combined with reasonable technical and physical security measures, we are likely to find our privacy and our peace of mind ever more encroached on.

Spending the time and the money to develop more effective but less intrusive security systems is absolutely essential. Sensors that can detect explosives and other dangerous materials without requiring electronic or physical body searches are the ultimate airport-security technology. Used in concert with appropriate profiling, face-recognition-and-analysis video technology, and good intelligence collection, analysis and dissemination, TSA can improve security without violating our rights or our dignity.

Until better technology comes along or the radiation from full-body scanners is proven to be a serious health risk, we’re likely stuck with them. Too much reliance on them, however, and forcing anyone who opts-out to undergo intrusive pat-downs, may prove counterproductive. Terrorists will find ways around these security measures. People avoiding flying in the United States because of intrusive security hurts the airline industry and the U.S. economy.

No security system, no matter how good, is 100 percent foolproof. Sooner or later the odds are that the terrorists will succeed in one of their frequent attempts to blow up another commercial aircraft. When that happens, we’re likely to put aside, for the moment, our concerns about intrusive security as we grieve for those who lost their lives and worry about our own security. If, however, we allow the terrorists to turn America into a police state as a reaction to our vulnerability and our loss, they will have done far more damage.

Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.