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"Peering Into Airport Security"

December 24, 2001

Satire by
Lauren Weinstein


Greetings and happy holidays. Almost exactly one year ago, in a "Reality Reset" column entitled "Love Thy Missiles", I spoke to defense analyst "Buck" Turgidson about the realities of missile defense and security systems. At that time, Buck expressed considerable skepticism about airline security measures. In the light of events since then, I thought it appropriate to have another chat with him.

"Buck, thanks for joining me again," I said.

"I'm glad to be back, though I certainly wish it was under more pleasant circumstances," said Buck.

"Indeed. But certainly you'd agree that in the wake of September 11th, the government and the airlines have really gotten their acts together regarding terrorism, haven't they?"

"Lauren, like I told you before, security tends to be about perceptions and money, not about real protection. Little has really changed in terms of the potential risks as far as commercial airline travel is concerned."

"How is that possible?" I asked. "Look at all the stuff they pull out of people's carry-on luggage. They're even forcing lots of folks to take their shoes off at the airports so their footwear can be x-rayed!"

"That's all true. But outside of the possibility that the resulting smell might scare away a potential terrorist, it's still really basically the same old tune," said Buck.

"But the new security seems almost airtight," I said. "People are even having their fingernail clippers confiscated!"

"Sure, but they're still carrying pens and keys onboard, which can be much more effective weapons than a half-inch fingernail clipper blade! Or how about a sharpened belt buckle? Or ..."

"Well, I didn't really think about those sorts of things," I said.

"No? Well you can be sure that the bad guys do! You want something else to worry about? What's going to happen when suicide bombers start to show up with explosive systems that they've swallowed or had surgically implanted, or with explosives and weapons hidden in other spots where the sun doesn't shine? Do you think that the traveling public will accept body cavity searches and penetrating body x-rays before every flight? That'll be just great for tourism."

"Well, at least the government's doing the right thing when it comes to scanning of checked baggage -- they're buying all those new bomb detectors," I said.

"Lauren, it's completely possible for a terrorist to build a device that would have a very high likelihood of not being detected by those systems, but still be capable of exploding or starting a catastrophic fire."

"Buck, you're scaring the hell out of me."

"That's the idea, Lauren. If you want to have real security, you need to have highly-trained persons hand inspect every single item of carry-on and checked luggage, plus every bit of cargo. And I wasn't joking about the 'inside and out' body searches, either. A tiny airline like El Al might be able to manage such things, but do you have any concept of what would happen to the large airlines and the airline industry in general? Kiss them goodbye."

"There must be some alternative, Buck," I said.

"Well, yes. If you look at recent events, you see mainly intelligence failures, not technology failures. Some of the 9-11 hijackers were already on watch lists. The fellow who tried to light up his shoes on that flight from Paris had actually been questioned by officials at the airport the day before, resulting in his missing that day's flight. But the next day, he apparently didn't undergo any special scrutiny when he tried again successfully. The key is to focus your attention on specific individuals whose actual behavior is suspicious, rather than trying to track and screen people in general. It's easy to get into a very abusive situation when you start treating everyone like criminals. And you still don't solve the problem of terrorism that way."

"So if the problem is mainly on the human side of the equation, how come most of the focus seems to be on buying new security equipment? They're supposedly going to be spending billions!"

"Lauren, I explained this to you last time. There's relatively little money in the human intelligence game. The big bucks are in the expensive gadgets. Plus, the machines buy you a degree of deniability. When something goes wrong, you can blame the machine, not some individual who dropped the ball on an investigation."

"Buck, you've certainly painted a dark picture for the future of the airlines."

"Oh, it's not all bad. After all, they did stop serving meals on most flights. Considering the quality of airline food, I consider that a plus," said Buck.

"I can always count on you to find a silver lining," I replied.

= = = = = =

Lauren Weinstein

For information about the author, please see: http://www.vortex.com/lauren

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