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False airport security

THE TRANSPORTATION Security Administration has the unenviable task of protecting travelers from terrorists while at the same time not causing lengthy delays. Two new proposals from the agency would make questionable progress toward these goals, and neither would do anything to fill the biggest gap in airline security: the failure to inspect the commercial cargo that is carried in the holds of passenger planes. Ever since the TSA was created to improve the woefully inadequate security provided by airlines themselves, members of Congress have been pressuring the agency to come up with some system to shield frequent fliers from long security lines at airports.


Some in Congress want frequent fliers, many of them influential constituents, to be offered "trusted traveler" status and exemption from security checks if they volunteer personal data. The TSA has sensibly resisted, fearing that sleeper terrorists could live long enough in the United States to gain "trusted" status and escape close screening.

In an attempt to minimize this problem, however, the agency has come up with trusted-traveler lite. Frequent fliers could still volunteer personal data but it would not get them through basic security checks; they would be exempt only from secondary checks of passengers and their carry-on items.

But even relaxing that degree of security is worrisome. The regular checks that passengers and their carry-ons are put through are notoriously fallible, even with the better trained screening personnel. It would be folly to grant any class of passengers an automatic exemption from a closer check.

The other proposal from the TSA also raises questions. Under this plan, the agency would take over from airlines the preflight profiling of passengers, which now results in about 15 percent of all travelers getting closer security checks. To do this, the government would require the names, addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, and itineraries of all travelers.

After checking this information with databases, the TSA would designate passenger status as red, yellow, or green. Reds would be forbidden to fly; yellows would get extra attention, and greens -- 95 percent of all travelers -- would go through normal security. Certainly airport security is an annoyance, but this intrusive paper chase is little improvement. And the resources needed would be far better used in pursuing actual suspects and improving and integrating the watch lists for airlines that government agencies already compile.

The best safeguards against a repeat of 9/11 have already been put in place: secure cockpit doors, revised training of airline personnel, and greater use of air marshals. The Bush administration is most delinquent in not requiring manual or automated inspection of all commercial cargo carried in passenger planes.

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