Do TSA procedures mean the terrorists have won?
posted at 1:00 pm on July 8, 2011 by Ed Morrissey
So argues NBC’s Richard Engel, who routinely travels to some of the most dangerous places in the world. His passport contains stamps from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia, and other well-known hotbeds of terrorism and revolution. Yet Engel says he has never been treated the way the TSA treated him and others at a security checkpoint, and he wonders whether we’ve succumbed to fear in exactly the manner al-Qaeda terrorists had hoped before 9/11. His epiphany arrived when asked to pose for the TSA’s new backscatter scanners, and watched a 7-year-old go through the same process:
In Baghdad, I had to go through an earlier model of the machine before I was allowed to enter a courtroom for the trial of Saddam Hussein. That seemed reasonable at the time. There were millions of Iraqis who wanted to kill Saddam, or to at least disrupt his trial. The blurred-naked-photo-machine didn’t bother me then.
It did bother me as I stood with my feet in outlines on the floor and my hands over my head, palms pressed together in Los Angeles. It bothered me even more as I watched a girl who couldn’t have been more than 7 years old forced to assume the same undignified position. I watched her mother help the girl, showing her how to raise her hands in the correct position.
Engel asked to file a complaint, a request handled politely by the inspector, who also responded that Engel might not comprehend all the reasons for their precautions — an argument that amused the world traveling journalist. The supervisor recognized Engel and tried the same argument with him:
“Don’t you travel to dangerous places all the time? How can this bother you? Where you go, people are shooting at you,” he said.
“Yes, but this is what the terrorists wanted. They want us to live in fear,” I said.
The supervisor who recognized me was wearing a “Remember 9-11” pin on his dark blazer.
“This is why Americans need to take back what we’re losing,” I told him, pointing to his pin. He seemed unconvinced and suggested I file a complaint.
I’ve watched American troops fight, and sometimes die, to drive the Taliban and al-Qaida from Afghanistan, and to secure free elections in Iraq. They have been fighting for other people to be free. I was horrified to see that despite their sacrifices we’d let ourselves become a nation that appears to be driven by fear.
One country left off of Engel’s list was Israel, but it is on my substantially-less-traveled passport. I traveled there last month for business, and some readers remembered my posts comparing Israeli airport security to our TSA procedures. I’ve been asked whether I still think the Israeli method is superior, and this is a good opportunity to discuss my experience.
Let’s start with my car pickup arrangements. I flew out of Israel at 6:30 in the morning from Tel Aviv, but the car was scheduled for 3:30 in the morning. I asked whether that much lead time was really necessary — I would have liked to get a little more sleep — and the amused answer was, “Oh, yes.” When I got to the airport I found out why.
Israelis use a multi-tiered security system that relies more on psychology than technology. Travelers arrive and immediately get queued, bags in hand, to interview lines with security agents. They check passports and ask a few questions to test responses; if they don’t like the answers or if you fit a profile that indicates a higher risk, you get routed to a more intensive security assessment. If you get cleared, you then take all your bags to an X-ray station, where a few more questions may or may not be asked. Once cleared, you then take your bags to the airline ticket counter to check any bags needed — and since Israelis take a rather casual and aggressive attitude towards queuing, that can become quite an adventure.
You’re still not done by this point. Travelers then have to go through another security check, this one more like the traditional US model with metal detectors and carry-on bag X-rays, but no groping or backscatter scanners. Finally, travelers have to go through a formal passport review, which can mean another brief interview, and possibly another diversion if the answers indicate risk. All told, it took me more than 90 minutes to get to my gate, although a good portion of that can be attributed to the ticket counter.
This process works well, mainly because Israelis are looking for actual security problems and not simply sampling for problems. But the application in the US would be controversial on several points. First, as noted, Israelis have no qualms about profiling as part of this process. But perhaps more of an issue is the time and effort needed in this process. The Israelis have just three international airports [see update II] through which less than 10 million people pass a year; the US system is much larger, with much heavier traffic. The 90-minute path to get to a gate would almost certainly be longer in the US (although perhaps not, if the ticket counters are more efficient), multiplied across hundreds of airports and the costs multiplied as well, and most airports in the US aren’t configured for that many people to be held up before the security checkpoints that are already installed. Travelers here are already frustrated by delays getting to gates; unless we’re really living in fear, I doubt that the Israeli model would be tolerated here.
So perhaps Engel misses the mark a bit in his piece, although it’s very easy to understand his conclusion. The issue isn’t that Americans are living in real fear over the possibility of terrorism; if so, the expense and inconvenience of the Israeli system would be a small consideration bypassed on the way to system-wide adoption. It seems more likely that Americans are living in annoyance, and are willing to go so far and no farther to service that annoyance. The question is whether the TSA’s naked X-rays and genital groping exceed the annoyance level enough for voters and the public to put a stop to them.
While most Transportation Security Administration employees are busy groping people or taking naked pictures of them, the cops say one of those employees was putting fliers’ electronics down his pants.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office says 30-year-old Nelson Santiago stole around $50,000 worth of electronics over the past six months from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport’s Terminal 1.
Santiago — a TSA officer since 2009 — was caught earlier this week by a Continental Airlines employee taking an iPad out of someone’s luggage and stuffing it into his pants, the cops say.
Jazz wonders if this counts as “invasive,” but the problem here looks more like a lack of supervision. Regardless of whether we use the current model or the Israeli model, we’re going to have airport security agents, and they’re going to have access to baggage. It would help if we found agents who didn’t steal from passengers, but this looks like an isolated incident.
Update II: Reader Jamie G points out that Israel has three international airports: Ben Gurion (the airport I used in Tel Aviv), Haifa, and Ovda in Negev. They also have several regional and domestic airports. I’ve corrected the piece above to reflect the total of international airports in operation.