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Re: Have TSA Airport Security Checkpoints Improved?

4:35 PM, Jan 4, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
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Debra Burlingame makes some solid points regarding TSA checkpoint screening. During a flurry of recent holiday travel, I also took note of TSA's reaction to the underwear bomber, jotting down some observations while waiting in the infinite airport security lines.

The bureaucratic suck that is TSA seems to have removed the vital human element from checkpoint screening. Critics call it profiling, I call it instinct. When Richard Reid practiced for his eventual failed shoe bombing on an El-Al flight, something about him gave Israeli screeners the creeps. Said Israeli Sky Marshall Schlomo Dror of Reid:

"The first thing: Where is your suitcase? You are not going to the United States without any suitcase," says Dror. "How, where are you going to spend your time? Are you, are you going to sleep naked in the Central Park? What are you going to do over there without suitcase? So, this is the first question and that (will) raise a lot of red lights."

In fact, the Israelis got a chance to ask Reid a lot of questions, because he flew El Al last summer. They didn't like the look of him, so they checked everything in his bags, and everything he was wearing, and then put an armed sky marshal in the seat right next to him.

Everything about the Israeli process is unpredictable and humanistic, evaluating behavior and mannerisms. Basic questioning, Israeli style, could have kept Reid off of American Airlines 63. The TSA works with an opposing philosophy. Their screening procedures appear, outwardly at least, to be fully regulated, codified, and technologically dependent. That makes them predictable, which makes them exploitable.

I wasn't impressed with the TSA screeners either. They seemed bored, like someone working in a coat check or valet service, instead of a group of professionals charged with a national security duty of the highest importance. They acted like assembly line workers instead of detectives, annoyed with delays and interruptions to the mechanical processing of passengers through checkpoints. They showed signs of workers beaten down by a bureaucratic system, whose stifling regulation and obtuse procedures destroyed any sense of pride and professionalism in their work. That's an unforgivable failure of leadership on TSA's end, one that's leaving gaping holes in our airline security.

We don't have the resources to screen airline passengers like the Israelis do. But a smarter approach is clearly needed, instead of useless overreactions to terror events that have already happened. TSA needs to introduce some unpredictability into their screening process. Passengers need to be evaluated for suspicious behavior instead of being shoved through security gates like cattle. They need to train screeners to emphasize instinct and common sense instead of drone-like adherence to regulation. Most importantly though, as Debra so accurately pointed out, checkpoints should be a last line of defense. Better visa procedures are paramount to keeping the bad guys off our flights.