Airports urged to overhaul security system

Less reliance on technology is advocated

TSA head John S. Pistole said that he wants a more intelligence- based system, but that previous attacks can’t be ignored. TSA head John S. Pistole said that he wants a more intelligence- based system, but that previous attacks can’t be ignored.
By Anne E. Kornblut and Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post / December 18, 2010

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WASHINGTON — 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.

Scanners, pat-downs, and bomb-sniffing dogs are all vital parts of the process but should be integrated into a multilayered system that includes far-reaching, computer-filtered data about people, along with face-to-face monitoring by the modern equivalent of a beat cop, several officials and specialists said. Technology matters, they said, but it is akin to putting up a series of picket fences for terrorists to evade.

US officials and lawmakers acknowledge that broader revisions may be necessary, saying it is only a matter of time before the airport security apparatus fails.

“Let’s be honest: We’ve been lucky the last few times,’’ said Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, independent of Connecticut and the Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman. “With the Christmas Day bomber over Detroit and the Times Square bomber and the air cargo attempt, they did not succeed, but that’s because of their own inadequacies, not because we were able to stop them.’’

As a result of those attempts, passengers must surrender sharp objects (a response to the Sept. 11 attacks) and slip off their shoes (a response to the 2001 would-be shoe bomber). They must remove liquids from their bags (a result of a 2006 plot to blow up planes), and, as of a few weeks ago, they must submit to body scans or pat downs (a process accelerated by the attempted airline bombing last Christmas).

Yet lawmakers and government reports question the capability of some specific measures. Year after year, undercover testers manage to sneak loaded weapons past screeners in embarrassing evasions. More broadly, skeptics describe the extreme focus on airport checkpoints as incomplete, too often focused on the last attack rather than the next one.

“In every one of these [post-9/11] attacks, the security checkpoint was overcome by terrorists who took advantage of the loopholes,’’ said Rafi Ron, former security director at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport.

Even Transportation Security Administration head John S. Pistole, in an interview, described his agency as merely a “last line of defense on a continuum of government national security efforts.’’

Like others interviewed, Pistole said that he hopes to move to a more intelligence-based system but that the previous attacks could never be ignored.

“We always have to look out for yesterday’s threats,’’ he said. “Shame on us if there’s ever a repeat of 9/11 or the shoe bomber or the underwear bomber, if we haven’t hardened our targets.’’

Some critics have given the labyrinthine airport security system the nickname security theater, saying it is riddled with loopholes.

Airport workers are not screened daily, making them capable of passing into secure areas with weapons. Lines inside the terminal are vulnerable to a suicide bomber. Packages sent as cargo go through a comparatively light screening process — one that is being tightened but that was exploited by Al Qaeda operatives in October when they sent bombs hidden in printer cartridges.

For Al Qaeda, forcing the United States to continually add layers of air security amounts to victory in its own right.

“If your opponent covers his right cheek, slap him on his left,’’ its writers gloated in the organization’s magazine, Inspire. “The continuous attempts that followed 9-11 . . . have forced the West to spend billions of dollars to defend its airplanes.’’ The strategy, they wrote, is one of “a thousand cuts’’ to “bleed the enemy to death.’’

The repeated attempts have pushed US officials into a costly pattern of trial and error, testing what works — and what the public will accept. Since 2002, the TSA budget has totaled $57.2 billion — about what the government spends on intelligence programs in a single year. Still, there have been obvious excesses.

Machines, such as the $160,000-a-pop “puffer portals’’ introduced in 2004, have been introduced and then jettisoned. The color-coded terrorism alert program is on its way out. Britain plans to abandon its restrictions on liquids in April, and US officials say they would like to do the same.

Other changes may soon follow. Representative John L. Mica, Republican of Florida, wants to replace TSA workers with private screeners, as 17 airports nationwide have done, to make them more efficient and accountable. Others would shift to a system that incorporates more passenger data into the screening system, on top of the new identity markers — including a passenger’s sex and birthday — that airlines recently started to gather.