In the face of an attack that was stopped mainly due to incompetence, we have seen security raised yet again for flights coming into the United States. This may seem like a good move and, if you wish to immediately allay some fears that your government isn’t doing enough to stop bombers from entering a plane, it is. However, I think most people know that this is a superficial toughening of security at best.
Consider that this time the threat wasn’t from something being carried in a suitcase, but in a man’s underwear. So, extra pat downs, requiring all carry-ons to be stored overhead, and requiring everyone to sit for the last hour of a flight just don’t make any sense. They’re probably not going to stop any attacks this way.
So what can be done?
First of all, there are the things that you can do before a person becomes a threat. Like taking warnings seriously when the father of the terrorist tells you his son is a problem (Take note, Obama administration). Or, making sure that the people you’ve known about for two years are put on the no-fly list (The Bush administration should have done this).
Still, as good as our intelligence community is, you will not be able to catch everybody beforehand. Therefore, security at the airports is paramount, but simply toughening the measures already in place will not be enough. There needs to be a new approach.
Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey thinks he knows what to do. Rather than focus so much on measures that look for dangerous items, adopt ones that focus on people:
The US should have started emulating El Al after 9/11, whose security screening uses expert analysis and questioning, as well as heightened scrutiny where it belongs.
El Al is an Israeli airline that has taken an innovative approach to airport security. They use experts in expression recognition to find people who are acting unusually, or are otherwise acting in a way that may deem them a threat. These people are then taken out for further scrutiny. Some U.S. airports were using the method a few years ago, but I don’t know what ever became of it. From the NY Times in 2006 (via Morrissey’s old Captain’s Quarters blog):
After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, he said, state police officers there wondered whether a technique they had long used to try to identify drug couriers at the airport might also work for terrorists. The officers observed travelers’ facial expressions, body and eye movements, changes in vocal pitch and other indicators of stress or disorientation. If the officers’ suspicions were aroused, they began a casual conversation with the person, asking questions like “What did you see in Boston?” followed perhaps by “Oh, you’ve been sightseeing. What did you like best?”
The questions themselves are not significant, Mr. Robbins said. It is the way the person answers, particularly whether the person shows any sign of trying to conceal the truth.
The dangerous object detection already done in normal post-9/11 security, combined with more focus on the people moving through the line, would certainly be an improvement. As we’ve learned since 9/11, it is still dreadfully easy to get banned objects past security. However, with the addition of teams scanning the behavior of passengers, that ought to help identify potential threats before they get on to the plane.
The system isn’t by any means perfect. There is the matter of false positives; some people are simply more nervous when flying. I myself am a bit nervous at airports, not because I’m afraid of flying, but because I don’t want to move my hand the wrong way and get tackled by a dozen TSA agents. However, I would argue that it is better to have a few innocent-but-still-nervous people go through the extra scrutiny rather than missing an actual terrorist with the current measures that inconvenience everybody but protect nobody.
My other concern is the ability for Al Qaeda to adapt to new measures. We have already seen them react to the fact that airports and governments are already more sensitive to Arab passengers. The terrorist in the Christmas Day attack attempt was a black Nigerian, not an Arab. Is it possible for them to train operatives to act like a normal passenger? To not express fear of what they are about to do? Certainly fear must be one of many emotions running through an operative’s mind and body as they get ready to attack. Can Al Qaeda train future operatives to be relaxed prior to an attack?
Maybe, and I fear that these new type of security personnel, if such a program were to be implemented, could become too comfortable in searching for certain patterns, and miss new ones as they develop. The TSA would need to work with intelligence officials to keep apprised of changing training methods by AQ. They should already be doing this, anyway. That said, you can’t exactly train your security to focus on anybody who is acting normal, or everybody will be taken aside for more thorough searches.
I am not sure that behavioral monitoring is a method that could work forever, but I also think that its implementation is necessary for airport security, at least as it currently stands. The program will need to be reconsidered for relevance as the years go on, and as terrorists change their own methods of operation. But for now, I do believe it is the way to go.