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One Year Later: Have TSA Airport Security Checkpoints Improved?

2:22 PM, Jan 4, 2010 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Debra Burlingame sends in a smart note about the TSA:

We need to address the TSA's history of knee-jerk responses after terrorist plots are attempted or revealed which do nothing to increase security and which may, in fact, be counter-productive. I have heard passengers, after being put through full bag searches and enhanced body searches, quoted in news articles saying, "If this is what it takes to prevent a bomb from getting on board, I'm willing to do it." I'd like to add, I have had a TSO use the back of her blue, rubber-gloved hands to feel around my breasts. I'm sure she doesn't like doing it any more than we like having it done, but it is ridiculous to engage in degrading, public procedures (you get felt up in front of everyone) that have no security value.

Here's the TSA modus operandi in reality: in 2006 and 2007, covert Red Teams smuggled liquid bomb components and detonators on airplanes (2006--21 out of 21 airports failed to detect; failure rate at LAX 75%, ORD 60%, DEN 90%; 2007, 19 out of 19 failed to detect). The Red Teams smuggled them in carry-on bags and on their bodies. They said pat downs were inadequate. The TSA's response to these dismal results was that these tests were "statisticially insignificant." Further, they maintained that buying and deploying "advanced technology" x-ray equipment (the same technology used since the 1970s and which doesn't detect liquid explosives or low density powder) was a "better business decision." This was AFTER the British trans-Atlantic liquid bomb was uncovered. I kid you not. That is what Kip Hawley, the TSA administrator said. Worse, he contended that the explosives material smuggled on board airliners would cause "an interesting fireworks display" that would "put a flash in the plane, that is not a good thing, they will be arrested, and other passengers will certainly take it out on them" but it wouldn't do "serious catastrophic damage, take an airplane down" and therefore he wasn't concerned about it. At a hearing of the House Committee on Government Reform chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman on November 15, 2007, entitled "One Year Later: Have TSA Security Checkpoints Improved," federal investigators presented a video to the full committee which showed what kind of damage the assembled bombs could make. The improvised bomb blew out the floor and doors of a car. An incendiary device -- similar to what caused the pop and flame on the Christmas Day attack -- created a flame that shot 15 feet into the air.

So now we have al Qaeda graduating from liquid explosives available in stores or the internet to military-grade powder sewn into undergarments. What's the TSA's response to a real near-catastrophe? Useless pat downs and unproven technology, body scanners. I urge people to look at the images these scanners create. Is it clear that low-density powder, an amount equal to 1/3 cup, spread in the crotch of a bomber's underwear, hidden by genitals, will be easily detectible? What if the terrorist secretes the powder in his anus, removes it on board in the lav and carries it to his seat? Note also that the more detailed scanner takes 45 seconds per scan. How long will it take to scan an entire jumbo jet of people? There is no way the airlines will stand for this. It will bring commercial air travel to a standstill. The dirty little secret at TSA is that the airlines (euphemistically called, the "stakeholders") still run the show. They are the ones who say, 'open another check point, move the people faster.' They have a powerful lobby and they have no compunction about deploying it.

My point here is, the critical difference is intelligence and proper protocols on travel documents (9/11 commission: "To terrorists, travel documents are as important as weapons") not security theater. This whole thing could have been stopped if someone in the U.S. consulate in Nigeria decided that pulling an Islamist's multi-entry visa would be a prudent thing. The info from his father was detailed and alarming. State had the authority to revoke Abdulmutallab's visa and didn't, they say, because it's the NCTC's job. If you think a wolf is at the door, you do not engage in discussions about whose job it is to lock it. This is the triumph of process over security. Or worse, finger-pointing to escape blame. The entire visa process was at the heart of 9/11 failures, and it failed us again on Christmas Day. The entire visa program should be taken away from diplomats and handed over to a national security agency more concerned about thwarting terrorists than offending client states. In the meantime, the TSA should cease the random and rampant abuse of passengers for appearance sake.