Jeff Jacoby

Air travel: One step behind terrorists

TSA Administrator John Pistole digs in his heels on new screening methods. TSA Administrator John Pistole digs in his heels on new screening methods. (Bloomberg)
By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / November 21, 2010

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NOT EVERYONE has reacted the same way to the Transportation Security Administration’s aggressively intimate new frisking technique. Air traveler John Tyner created a minor sensation when he recorded himself warning a TSA screener in San Diego: “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested.’’ Journalist Emmett Tyrrell, on the other hand, says he would “welcome a soothing pat-down. . . especially if the patter-downer is a cute little number on the order of, say, Sarah Palin.’’ It takes all types to fill a passenger plane.

But what are we to make of TSA Administrator John Pistole, who told a congressional committee last week that he has no intention of relaxing his agency’s intrusive new screenings? These include both the hands-on body search (which at least one pilot has compared to “sexual molestation’’), and — for those who would rather be ogled electronically — full-body X-ray scanners that leave nothing to the imagination.

“I’m not going to change those policies,’’ Pistole testified, brushing aside a flood of recent passenger complaints as the price to be paid for security. Why, TSA’s current methods are so effective, he insisted, that had they been in effect last December they would have thwarted Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the al-Qaeda terrorist who tried to blow up a jetliner on Christmas Day with a bomb sewn into his underwear. That would have been quite an achievement, considering that Abdulmutallab was flying into the United States from Europe, and was never screened by TSA.

“There is an ever-evolving nature to terrorist plots,’’ Pistole told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “It is clear we have to be one step ahead of the terrorists.’’

One step ahead? That isn’t how TSA operates. Knives and sharp objects were banned from carry-on luggage after 9/11, so Richard Reid boarded American Airlines Flight 63 with a bomb built into his shoe. Passengers ever since have had to take off their shoes, so the 2006 Heathrow terrorists came up with a plan to use liquid explosives. TSA responded by confining liquids to tiny containers sealed in baggies, so Abdulmutallab smuggled explosive powder in his underwear. Now TSA scans or feels even air travelers’ nether regions, so terrorists based in Yemen hid two bombs inside printer cartridges and shipped them to addresses in Chicago. TSA promptly responded by announcing that “toner and ink cartridges over 16 ounces will be prohibited on passenger aircraft in both carry-on bags and checked bags.’’ Just who has been staying a step ahead of whom?

Precisely because terrorist plots are “ever-evolving,’’ it is fruitless to keep trying to prevent the last terror attack. Yet that is just what TSA keeps doing. What’s worse, it treats every airline passenger as a potential terrorist who must be searched for weapons — any imaginable weapons — before being allowed to board. That is a crazy system — crazy in its ineffectiveness, in its breathtaking cost, and in the staggering degree of inconvenience and invaded privacy it imposes on innocent passengers. In security expert Bruce Schneier’s cogent term, TSA provides not security, but security theater — “measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security.’’

Anyone who has traveled through Israel’s Ben Gurion airport or on El Al, the Israeli airline, has experienced what is widely considered the finest aviation security system in the world. That system doesn’t involve taking off shoes, confiscating water bottles, patting down toddlers, or conducting nude X-ray scans. Nor does it involve shutting down an entire terminal because a passenger inadvertently walked through the wrong door.

It does, however, involve careful attention to behavior, individual conversations with every traveler, and a lack of politically-correct inhibitions about profiling. Unlike TSA, the Israelis focus not on intercepting dangerous things, but on stopping dangerous people. It is hard to argue with their results.

The federalization of airline security after 9/11 was a grave mistake. Instead of creating a vast new bureaucracy, Congress should have made the airlines themselves primarily responsible for guaranteeing their customers’ safety, with clear legal liability if they failed. With their bottom lines riding on it, the airlines would have been far more likely than any government agency to figure out how to get security right. Instead we ended up with groin gropes, naked X-rays, and “security’’ procedures that irritate everyone while keeping nobody safe.

The time has come to rethink air-travel safety from the ground up. Eliminating TSA might make a good start.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at