Anyone who has flown on U.S. or foreign commercial airlines since September 11, 2001 understands, intuitively, that we are all living in a giant insane asylum and that the inmates are fully in charge. Anyone who finds it acceptable that two or three bearded men dressed in Muslim garb should be allowed to pass almost unmolested through a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint, while my 88-year-old mother-in-law is made to raise herself painfully from her wheelchair to undergo a complete body pat-down, including a thorough inspection of the contents of her bra, is certifiably insane. But that is precisely what is happening in airports every day of the week, all across America.
The airport screening system that most Americans are familiar with requires each passenger to remove shoes, belts, jewelry, and pocket change… anything that might contain metal and/or explosive materials… for examination by an x-ray machine (cost: $35,000-$60,000). These items are then placed in large plastic trays, along with purses, briefcases, coats, jackets, and other carry-on items and the trays are placed on a conveyor belt attached to the x-ray machine. Items such as small pen knives and fingernail clippers attached to key rings are considered to be dangerous weapons and are confiscated and discarded. Next, the passenger is required to pass slowly through a doorway-sized metal detector (cost: $4,000-$5,000) which will sound an alarm if a passenger has any amount of implanted orthopedic, or even a stray piece of shrapnel in his/her person. In that event, the passenger is taken aside for a thorough going over with a hand-held wand (cost: $200).
And finally, once these indignities have been endured, the passenger is required to assist a TSA agent with an inspection of the contents of all carry-on bags, briefcases, and purses. Toiletries such as toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, facial creams, and lotions must be no larger than 3 oz. each and must be contained in a separate 1 qt. plastic zip-lock bag for easy inspection. Any items larger than a 3 oz. travel size are confiscated and discarded… perhaps set aside for use by the families and friends of TSA employees.
Once the passenger has endured all of these pointless indignities he/she is then permitted to retrieve and replace shoes, belts, pocket change, etc. Assuming all goes well, the average time required for screening – between arrival at the x-ray conveyor belt and the buckling of belts and the tying of shoes – is approximately 4.5 minutes and requires the participation of no fewer than six TSA employees. It is sheer madness. Clearly, so long as the TSA continues on its misguided approach to air safety… concentrating their efforts on finding “stuff,” such as guns, knives, explosives, and chemical components, instead of identifying those evil intent… they’re going to need a lot of help. According to a classified TSA report published by USA Today, screeners at Los Angeles International Airport missed roughly three out of four fake bombs used in random checkpoint efficiency tests, while screeners at Chicago’s O’Hare failed to detect roughly six out of ten fake bombs. This is not a record that should give air travelers any degree of comfort.
What is most frightening about all this is that the people who are in charge of identifying and adapting new airport screening technologies are the same people who decided the insane new rules for on-board passenger behavior in the wake of the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 over Detroit on December 25th. Among other inane restrictions, they decided that, henceforth, airline passengers would not be allowed to use a lavatory or to hold a blanket, a pillow, a purse, or any item of clothing in their laps during the final hour of a flight.
We can only hope that the numbskulls who dreamed up these insane new rules will one day suffer either from an enlarged prostate or from some other serious bladder control problem. However, none of the insanity that we’ve witnessed in airport security screening since 9/11 can begin to compare with what is now arriving on the scene. The latest and greatest insanity in airport security technology is the whole-body scanner (cost: $170,000-180,000), a device that allows a TSA screener to inspect the body, sans clothing, of every screened passenger. Two manufacturers, Analogic Corp. and Reveal Imaging Technologies, received millions of dollars from TSA to develop the machines, apparently with little or no thought to the serious nature of the inherent privacy concerns. Of the four types of all-body scanners now being deployed, the most anatomically revealing units are being used in European airports. The least revealing units, hence the least effective, are now being purchased and deployed in the U.S.
Did the technology gurus at DHS and TSA really believe that the traveling public would accept the notion of being observed, essentially in the nude, each time they pass through an airport security checkpoint? Are they not aware that it is unlikely that the all-body scanners being used in 19 U.S. airports would have found the chemical compound concealed in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s undershorts?<
Most importantly, are they completely unaware of the details surrounding the August 28, 2009 assassination attempt on Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef? In that instance, Prince Mohammed was receiving guests in his palace in Jeddah when he was approached by a suicide bomber who had successfully bypassed palace security protocols. The assassin was not carrying a weapon or parcel of any kind and he had no explosives strapped to his body. The assassin carried his explosives stuffed into a major body cavity. (No, it wasn’t an ear, a nostril, or his mouth.)
At the risk of being a bit indelicate, it should also be noted that Jihadists are now recruiting female suicide bombers, which only serves to exacerbate the problem. Ultimately, it is important to understand that those who are willing to die in an effort to kill numbers of innocent people would not find the use of body cavities for the storage of explosives to be too offensive for their own sensibilities. Need I say more?
What is needed to restore a degree of sanity to our airport security operations is an entire change in direction. Instead of spending billions of dollars in a fruitless search for a magic device that will keep suicide bombers off our airplanes, we need to adopt something close to the Israeli airport security methodology. Instead of looking for “stuff” – weapons and explosive compounds and components – we need to be looking for people who seek access to our airplanes for purposes of evil intent.
By far the best available technology to fill that need is the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer CVSA (cost: $10,000-12,000). A major airport with six security screening lanes could be equipped for less than $75,000, as opposed to the $1.38 million cost of what the TSA is now purchasing and installing. But what is more important is that the CVSA system would be far more effective in screening out those who are intent upon injuring or killing their fellow passengers.
The CVSA is proven 98 percent effective in civil law enforcement investigations and in terrorist interrogations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay – far more effective than the 60-75 percent failure rate of the TSA’s own self-imposed efficiency tests; passengers could be screened in less than 30 seconds per passenger, compared to the 4.5 minutes required to move through the current system; and the number of TSA employees could be reduced by half, or more.
Armed with a single CVSA unit, a TSA agent could take each passenger behind a screen and ask, at random, a series of three or four questions from a list of pre-prepared questions. For example: 1) Did you drive your own automobile to the airport today? Yes or no. 2) Did anyone assist you in packing your bags? Yes or no. 3) Did you eat breakfast today? Yes or no. 4) Are you in possession of any weapon or substance that could be used to injure other passengers? Yes or no. If the CVSA detected deception in response to any of the operative questions, which it would be certain to do (unlike the polygraph, the CVSA cannot be defeated), that passenger could then be taken aside for a thorough search of his/her person, clothing, and luggage, both checked bags and carry-ons.
Unfortunately, the DHS and the TSA appear to be afflicted with a highly contagious Washington disease which tells that that, if it doesn’t cost at least a million dollars a copy, and if they didn’t invent it, it can’t be worth a damn. So, while DHS and TSA technocrats make repeated trips to Capitol Hill, carrying away billions more to support their fruitless search for the ultimate magic machine, they continue to ignore the obvious answer to their search, the elephant in the living room, the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer. It has been said that the first step toward success is taken when you refuse to be a captive of the environment in which you first find yourself. Clearly, the technology researchers at DHS and TSA are captives of the environment in which they exist. Let us hope that the day will come when they recognize their mistake. And as we wait for that day to arrive, let us hope that the American people don’t have to pay for the wait with their lives.
Contributing Editor Paul Hollrah is a Senior Fellow at the Heritage Institute.