Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The debate on airport security: what do you think?

Let us start with the obvious: in the entire decade or so of airport security since the attacks on America on September 11th 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has not foiled a single terrorist plot or caught a single terrorist. Its own "Top 10 Good Catches of 2011" does not have a single terrorist on the list. The "good catches" are forbidden items carried by mostly forgetful, and entirely innocent, people—the sorts of guns and knives that would have been just as easily caught by pre-9/11 screening procedures. Not that the TSA is expert at that; it regularly misses guns and bombs in tests and real life. Even its top "good catch"—a passenger with C4 explosives—was caught on his return flight; TSA agents missed it the first time through.

In previous years, the TSA has congratulated itself for confiscating home-made electronics, alerting the police to people with outstanding misdemeanour warrants and arresting people for wearing fake military uniforms. These are hardly the sorts of things we spend $8 billion annually for the TSA to keep us safe from.

Don't be fooled by claims that the plots it foils are secret. Stopping a terrorist attack is a political triumph. Witness the litany of half-baked and farcical plots that were paraded in front of the public to justify the Bush administration's anti-terrorism measures. If the TSA ever caught anything even remotely resembling a terrorist, it would be holding press conferences and petitioning Congress for a bigger budget.

The argument that the TSA, by its very existence, deters terrorist plots is equally spurious. There are two categories of terrorists. The first, and most common, is the amateurs, like the guy who crashed his plane into the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin. They are likely to be sloppy and stupid, and even pre-9/11 airplane security is going to catch them. The second is the well-briefed, well-financed and much rarer plotters. Do you really expect TSA screeners, who are busy confiscating water bottles and making people remove their belts and shoes, to stop the latter sort?

Of course not. Because the TSA's policies are based on looking backwards at previously tried tactics, it fails against professionals. Consider this century's history of aircraft terrorism. We screened for guns and bombs, so the terrorists used box cutters. We confiscated box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers. We screened footwear, so they tried to use liquids. We confiscated liquids, so they put PETN bombs in their underwear. We rolled out full-body scanners, even though they would not have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge. We banned printer cartridges over 16 ounces—the level of magical thinking here is amazing—and surely in the future they will do something else.

This is a stupid game, and we should stop playing it. Overly specific security measures work only if we happen to guess both the target and the plot correctly. If we get either wrong—if the terrorists attack something other than aircraft, or use a tactic we have not thought of yet—we have wasted our money and uselessly annoyed millions of travellers.

Airport security is the last line of defence, and it is not a very good one. If there were only a dozen potential terrorist tactics and a hundred possible targets, then protecting against particular plots might make us safer. But there are hundreds of possible tactics and millions of possible targets. Spending billions to force the terrorists to alter their plans in one particular way does not make us safer. It is far more cost-effective to concentrate our defences in ways that work regardless of tactic and target: intelligence, investigation and emergency response.

That being said, aircraft require a special level of security for several reasons: they are a favoured terrorist target; their failure characteristics mean more deaths than a comparable bomb on a bus or train; they tend to be national symbols; and they often fly to foreign countries where terrorists can operate with more impunity.

But all that can be handled with pre-9/11 security. Exactly two things have made air travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door, and convincing passengers that they need to fight back. Everything else has been a waste of money. Add screening of checked bags and airport workers and we are done. All the rest is security theatre. If we truly want to be safer, we should return airport security to pre-9/11 levels and spend the savings on intelligence, investigation and emergency response.

This seems to me to be a debate worth having.....