Can you guess how many terrorists have been caught at checkpoints in American airports? Given all of the effort by TSA to reach out and touch as many people as possible — at least those they like — you may be surprised to hear that the answer is zero. In nine years of increased and increasing checkpoint activity, not one terrorist has been stopped by the TSA; those who have gone through the checkpoints at home and abroad have only been caught by quick-thinking passengers. The Washington Post reports that a new consensus is building that the checkpoint system is not enough:
Nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks and decades after hijackers first began to target passenger airliners, the United States has invested billions of dollars in an airport system that makes technology the last line of defense to intercept terrorists.
It has yet to catch one.
In every known recent attempt, terrorists have used a different tactic to evade the latest technology at airport checkpoints, only to be thwarted by information unearthed through intelligence work – or by alert passengers in flight.
The result is an emerging consensus among experts and lawmakers that the checkpoint-heavy approach – searching nearly every passenger – may not be the most effective.
Instead, many of them say, the system should focus more urgently on individuals, gathering a greater range of information about people to identify those most likely to present a real danger.
In one sense, though, the zero may be unfair. While the restrictions and protocols at the checkpoints have been entirely reactive, an argument can be made that they have had a deterrent effect. Even flying from outside the US, the best AQ could do to attack an American flight was to load up a jihadi’s BVDs with a binary-explosive powder and hope that the fool could calculate the mix and blow his gonads off properly. The terrorists gave up on even that desperation strategy and switched to cargo planes for targets after that.
Clearly, though, the lack of any explicit success in stopping terrorists has combined with the outrage of all other flyers to pressure the federal government for more practical and workable solutions. The security process has to focus less on finding the bomb and more on finding the bombers. That may mean revisiting an old battle over privacy in another context other than pat-downs:
After Sept. 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration proposed a $380 million program that would have combined commercial data about passengers with flight manifests to give a more complete picture of travelers. Civil liberties groups objected and the program was dropped, but some now say it might make sense to consider a revised version.
Department of Homeland Security officials already have access to some commercial data about passengers traveling from overseas. But if the security system were allowed to access even more – such as personal information collected by companies that do credit ratings – suspicious passengers would be more readily identified, experts say.
Asked whether he would be open to revisiting that idea, Pistole replied: “Sure, if Congress said we should do that.”
Perhaps. They also said that about full-body scanners and pat-downs, too. It turns out that the scanners can get beaten, and the patdowns are so random and arbitrary as to be meaningless. The Israelis have a system that focuses airport security on every individual, making sure that trained agents talk with every single flyer before boarding a plane and looking for reactions that fit profiles of potential terrorists before escalating to bag searches, patdowns, and more. They have a decades-long record of success in protecting flights, albeit on a much smaller scale than the US. Why are we not moving in the direction of demonstrated success rather than trying to reinvent the wheel?