Airport Security… an Exercise in Balance

We made it...after all the trauma and turmoil over the TSA screening protocols over the Thanksgiving holiday by Monday morning it turned out to be much ado about nothing. Passengers were threatening security officials not to touch their “junk” and staunchly berating the process as a clear violation of their 4th Amendment rights to “unlawful” search and seizure.

Well, the dreaded security-concerned holiday week-end passed without any major travel incidents and the news quickly shifted to the success of the FBI short-circuiting a planned bomb plot by a Portland Somalia student bent on jihad and fully committed to killing thousands of parents and their children attending a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

A few points merit consideration here. First, for the folks screaming that airport searches are “illegal”, the 4th Amendment doesn’t apply to airports…nobody has any right to 4th Amendment protection in airports …or borders or prisons for that matter. This is not a TSA rule but a Supreme Court decision decided in the spirit of safety and national security so folks need to stop stomping their feet that their constitutional rights are being violated….not at an airport security checkpoint anyway. When you fly, or cross a U.S. border, you lose all “expectation of privacy”…people have live with it or not travel.

The Portland incident that was thwarted by the hard work and diligence of the U.S. intelligence community and the FBI brings us back to the hard, cold reality of the bigger issue, national security, airport security and the overlap. Since 9/11, the FBI has made counterterrorism their number one priority and has been successfully foiling terror operations targeting New York subways, JFK airport fuel lines, synagogues, the Sears Tower in Chicago, Los Angeles landmarks, Wrigley Field in Chicago and on and on. Many more are quietly short-circuited and never get reported in the press in order to protect sources and methods in this quiet war on terror in the United States. Without a doubt too, we’ve gotten lucky on a few occasions. Richard Reed couldn’t get his shoe bomb lit before some alert airline passengers and crew wrestled it away from him before he blew a gaping hole in the an aircraft flying 6 miles above the Atlantic. Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber just couldn’t get the detonation device right or carnage would have engulfed Times Square. Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, also failed to property ignite the PETN bomb hidden in his shorts as his aircraft approached Detroit International Airport last Christmas day full of holiday travelers. Had any of these jihadists successfully pulled off their intended act of terror, the carnage would have been unmistakably terroristic bringing Americans back to a mindset of September 12, 2001. These guys are out to get us and the game has gotten tougher!

People have seemed to have forgotten we are at war on two fronts against those who have contorted and hijacked their faith and believe that America and Israel must be destroyed and its citizens attacked on all fronts and at any cost. This is a “cat and mouse” game and they plot and plan and recruit “homegrown” boys with U.S passports to fly under the security radar. Their on-line recruitment and chat-rooms have obviated the need for jihadists to travel to foreign lands and to attend training camps as evidenced by the Madrid train bombings, the London subway bombing and the many plots foiled in the U.S. This has added an entire to new dimension to the challenges of counterterrorism. Those “tripwires” that traditionally aided law-enforcement and the intel community; airline reservations, travel, money transfers and the like, have, in many instances, gone away.

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates are clearly determined and aviation targets remain their prime focus as evidenced the missed attempts of Reed and Abdulmuttalab and the attempted attack on U.S bound cargo planes just a few weeks ago. They also like symbolic targets; military, government, economic and Christian to include holidays like Christmas day. Al-Qaeda in its new web-based magazine, Inspire has declared PETN as its explosive of choice which poses its own vexing problems for security official and airports screeners in particular. PETN is a salt-like substance with a stability that makes it easy to hide, its molecular structure makes it difficult to detect and a small amount packs a powerful punch. This is not a zero sum game and the odds are against us so back to airport security.

Give TSA some consideration, they are working against tremendous odds and are under the gun to keep the flying public safe. Who is to say, TSA was not in receipt of a particular threat stream or piece of intelligence indicating an aviation asset may be targeted over Thanksgiving. The popular outcry has been why don’t we follow the Israeli model of airport security and a couple of points merit consideration here. First of all, the Israelis only have two international airports and only 9 million people fly through Israel each year; 600 million people fly through the U.S. each year. Yes, the Israeli “profile” but in the U.S., profiling is a pejorative term and claims are it is race-based and, hence, it’s termed “racial profiling”. Yes, police and security professionals “profile” situations and suspects all the time and thankfully, they do. But profiling in these instances is never based solely on race. It is based on the totality of a situation. Race may play a role, but the way someone is dressed, their conduct, nervousness, the use of their hands, eye-contact, the way they purchased their ticket, the type of ticket, the amount or lack of luggage, whatever the variable, plays a role.

Doctors profile us for heart disease each year when we go in for our annual physical taking into account, weight, cholesterol, age, eating habits and the like. Profiling by professionals, including the police is standard and expected practice. Just as my doctor can see and hear things I would never notice, security professionals hear and see things the average person would never notice. Israelis profile and they do it well and Israeli society accepts that. They know the “profile” of the terrorists trying to kill their citizenry and they screen them accordingly. But, we are not Israel in that we live in an inordinately ”politically correct” and extremely litigious society, so everyone gets and will continue to get equal treatment at security screening checkpoints whether one is a Yemeni male on a student visa returning from Haj or one is an 85 year old grandma, a Sister of Charity, and an eight year old member of the local cub scout chapter.

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