Nov 25th 2010 | New york | from PRINT EDITION
Another obvious terrorist foiled
UNTIL the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, America’s airport security was appallingly lax. Mostly, it was in the hands of contractors who relied on underpaid, badly trained staff; burger-flippers earned more. Screening machines were not regularly used. In November 2001, however, the job was made the responsibility of a new Transportation Security Administration (TSA). All baggage is now screened. Carrying liquids in quantities greater than 3.4oz (100ml) has not been permitted since 2006. Travellers must remove their shoes. And this month fresh measures were introduced with the widespread roll-out of full-body scanners.
These machines, deployed in response to the underpants bomber last Christmas, produce revealing images of the body, which makes travellers worry about their privacy. Other new measures permit intrusive body searches, including the touching of breasts and groins, previously off limits. Most passengers will continue to pass through just metal detectors. Only a small percentage will have to submit to a body scan. But passengers who refuse, or who set off a metal detector, will have to endure a pat-down, dubbed by wags “freedom pats” and “federal groping”.
Since the measures were introduced, earlier this month, there has been no shortage of horror stories—a breast-cancer survivor had to take off her prosthetic breast, a bladder-cancer survivor’s urine bag burst during one aggressive inspection and a shirtless young boy received a pat-down. One man threatened to have a screener arrested if he “touched his junk”. Videos capturing pat-downs have gone viral, generating indignation. Screeners were the subject of a sketch on “Saturday Night Live” (“It’s our business to touch yours”). A boycott of body scans, called National Opt-Out Day, was called for November 24th, the day before Thanksgiving and one of the busiest travel days of the year. In the event, however, the protest was a bit of a damp squib.
* Airline terrorism
* Air travel
* Transport security
* Passenger screening
TSA screeners have borne the brunt of the outrage. One was punched in the face. John Gage, head of the American Federation of Government Employees, felt obliged to point out that the screeners are merely enforcing the policy and do not get any pleasure from the new measures.
Bruce Schneier, a security guru, calls all this “security theatre”. He suspects they merely prompt attackers to change targets, and reckons it makes more sense to invest in better intelligence. Some suggest adopting Israel’s security model, based on extensive interviewing of passengers, but Mr Schneier says its methods cannot be scaled up to accommodate America’s tens of millions of passengers. John Mica, a Republican congressman from Florida whose legislation created the TSA, now thinks the screening process should be privatised again. Some airports, such as San Francisco’s, already use private screeners who are certified by the TSA and must adhere to federal rules. But privatising law enforcement is tricky.
The TSA admits that the new machines and pat-downs are intrusive, but maintains they are necessary. It has backed down a bit—pilots and flight attendants are now excused. Searches of children will be modified. Only the most senior are allowed to conduct the pat-downs. Yet Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, when asked if she would submit to a pat-down, said: “Not if I could avoid it. No, I mean, who would?”