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Rethinking Airport Security

BU’s top cop and former Logan antiterrorism chief: “We’re chasing our tail.”


Thomas Robbins, chief of the Boston University Police Department, advocates for behavioral profiling for airport security. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Christmas 2009 brought something none of us wished for: more hassles at the airport. In the wake of a bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound flight by a Nigerian with alleged al-Qaida links, air travelers now face slower screening lines, increased pat-downs, and more intrusive in-air rules involving blanket use and trips to the toilet.

Once again, airport security played catch-up after the screening system failed, as did U.S. intelligence — the 23-year-old thwarted bomber was in a database of possible terrorists, and the plot was known about before it was attempted. But will adding to a growing list of checks and restrictions make travelers safer? At what point does inconvenience become a humiliating invasion of privacy?

BU Today put these and other questions to Thomas Robbins, chief of the Boston University Police Department and former commander of the antiterrorism training unit (Troop F) at Logan International Airport.

BU Today: Since 9/11, airport screening has grown more and more time-consuming, invasive, and just plain annoying. But the restrictions often fail to stop new security breaches. How can air travelers really feel safer?
You’re right, the public has reason to question these regulations. We’re chasing our tail. There’s an attempt at a terrorist act, and we say, “How did this happen?” and we forensically look at it. To prevent future events, we’ll do x, y, and z, and we have to guess and outguess the terrorists. Years ago we looked for something with wires on it, your basic bomb, then shoe bomber Richard Reid came along, so we added the rule to take shoes off, than came a new threat with liquids, so we banned liquids. So this guy says, “I’ll sew the explosives into my underwear.” And you and I know the next place it’s going to be.

Before we go that far, we have to stop chasing our tail. The intelligence community has to get together and exchange information. After 9/11 we failed to connect the dots. And what did President Obama just say? Again, we failed to connect the dots.

Is our response to the recent attempt misguided?
We respond reflexively. We have to direct our attention to where the threat is coming from rather than doing something to avoid an incident like the one on Christmas. For example, we’re putting U.S. marshals on more international flights. But remember that prior to 9/11 our entire focus was on international flights, and look what happened. And there are a hell of a lot of domestic flights. All security must be in layers, so you’re not just policing one line. The terrorists will never give up on air transportation.

We’re now increasing screening of travelers from a list of terrorist-harboring nations, but the shoe bomber had a British passport. Isn’t good intelligence before the fact the way to avoid disaster?
It’s true. You can’t look at one culture, one ethnicity. You’ll miss the important information. Yes, we identified certain terrorist-watch countries; I agree with that 100 percent. But we’re missing the boat when we’re not looking at people who were radicalized internally. It’s good exercise to try to guess when the next plot is, but we need to address the source.

Security breaches aside, can the public be assured that all these regulations serve a purpose?
There have been successes. But we can’t give assurances; how do you prove a negative? We know with certainty that there have been arrests for planned attacks. People have come into an airport and been intercepted. We haven’t had a devastating tragedy since 9/11, and this has to be due to improved intelligence and better screening.

Are some of the regulations more about the illusion than about actual safety?
Absolutely, there is window dressing. And that’s important, to make the public feel reassured. But the main intent of bag searches, prohibitions, X-rays is not window dressing. It’s to find a weapon and prevent a tragedy.

When ordinary travelers see something they believe is suspicious, are they reporting it?
Most information comes from ticket agents, baggage handlers, bus drivers. We welcome cold calls, but the public generally doesn’t make them.

We’re at a point where pat-downs, body scans, and body searches are becoming routine. Where do we draw the line?
After 9/11, I said, “Let’s all fly naked.” When we get to the point where we’re talking about body cavity searches, we have to have a new approach. We’re doing some things right, but we’re looking for a needle in a haystack. There will always be an attempt to circumvent the technology. It’s better to have a two-pronged approach, to try to understand what a radicalized person is willing to do, to work with other countries, connect the dots. In my experience, mules swallow illegal drugs in condoms; why is it far-fetched for anybody to think that if there’s a way to do that with explosives, it will happen?

We have to address the real hatred. Otherwise we’re caught up in this cycle of more screening after each attempt.

There must be a better approach to keeping people safe than waiting shoeless in endless lines, clutching Baggies with tiny toothpaste and deodorant.
I’m a very strong proponent of behavioral profiling. We developed a screening program that is being used around the country and in the United Kingdom. The program trains people to look for behaviors typical of someone in operation or reconaissance mode. It’s different than racial profiling. And it works. When I was at Logan we were testing officers with this training, and our people doing the assessment spotted someone who fit the profile as dangerous. It turned out the guy was an undercover federal tester, and had a knife.

As inconveniences pile up, aren’t we facing a new threat — call it airport rage: more public meltdowns and rampages with no connection to terrorism? Are we pushing people too far?
After we implemented security measures post 9/11, just the opposite happened; what I heard from passengers was very positive. But we’re getting into an area now where people feel violated. Using the full body scan, for example, was discussed eight years ago and there wasn’t the appetite for it because people were concerned we’d gone too far. These are images of the person naked. Now we’ve come full circle, to where this person sewed the bomb in his underwear. But you still have to look at it in terms of how are we going to make sure the public is safe.

Do you think the regulations will ever be relaxed?
No, not for a long time. Look at the genocides, the hate against western civilization. Until we address that on a larger scale, look at it globally, we’re not going to be able to back off or pull down all these screening techniques. We have to get a lot better at dealing with threats over the long range. We’re still at war.

Susan Seligson can be reached at suselig@bu.edu.


7 Comments on Rethinking Airport Security

  • Anonymous on 01.12.2010 at 7:30 am

    we are just chasing our taling we are wasting our time

    Mr. Robbins is a smart man but I am shocked that he misses the big picture. These terrorist are capable of committing acts of terrorism anywhere and anytime. So what if we even did make everyone fly naked because they’ll just turn to bombing subways instead. The hypothesis that government can do a better job of keeping you safe has to be rejected based simply on the fact that the history and the news stories show that passengers like Todd Beamer and the dutch guy have done more to thwart terrorism than any air marshall ever has. The fact is that most people who get on a plane are the good guys and so searching them and disarming them and making them less able to defend themselves only makes it that much more difficult for them to subdue a potential terrorist. The simple fact that we are willing to sacrifice essential liberty for temporary security says to me that the terrorists are winning the war even while we delude ourselves into thinking otherwise based on the outcomes of few small battles. It is time to stop the nonsense and start living like the people who once resided in this country we refer to as the land of the free and home of the brave. Police cannot be everywhere and history shows that while they are good at catching criminals after the fact they are all but useless at prevent crime. No offense Mr Robbins you have my respect for you efforts but I am not a fool the regulations should be relaxed and the people empowered. I want my country back.

  • dan on 01.12.2010 at 9:32 am

    It sounds like the “terrorists” have won. They have effectively gotten the general US public to feel violated, anxious, and angry at our own citizens (TSA employees) for doing their jobs. What happens when we feel more violated–or dare I say terrorized–by the people assigned to protect us, than those who actually intend us harm?

  • freshouttatime on 01.12.2010 at 10:36 am

    strategy vs tactic

    i think robbins does a good job of stating that strategically we need to recognize and address motivating factors for terrorists, domestically most importantly and also internationally. this couple with a more intellegent tactical approach to prevention would make sense. otherwise alot of these security measures do appear like dressing and makes the public feel its a huge waste of time.
    maybe behavioral profiling is the way to go, requires a different type of training, but it could be cost effective in the long run, rather than institutionalizing long routine checks on every passenger on board for a flight

  • Anonymous on 01.12.2010 at 11:28 am

    No, Mr. Robbins is not missing the point. We need to fix our relationships with other countries. This is a global problem, not a problem with certain individuals.

    > the history and the news stories show that passengers like Todd Beamer and the dutch guy have done more to thwart terrorism than any air marshall ever has… and so searching them and disarming them and making them less able to defend themselves only makes it that much more difficult for them to subdue a potential terrorist

    Bull****. Yes, they did a tremendous job, but I bet you won’t get on a flight with no security check and each passenger is armed.

  • Anonymous on 01.12.2010 at 2:04 pm

    Rethinking Airport Security

    Mr. Robbins and everyone else has to grasp the reality that Al-Quida, and others who believe in RADICAL Islamic teachings, have the goal of destroying western societies. They have no other motivation and thus cannot be negotiated with. These ideologically motivated individuals and groups are simply unwilling to share the world with anyone who does not agree with them.

    The point regarding behavioral monitoring/profiling is extremely valid. The Israeli airline Al-El has been doing this for decades with tremendous success.

    The only way to mitigate risks (i.e., security) is to use a layered approach and intelligence is the first layer. The fact that the CIA, DHS, FBI and Counter-terrorism groups are still not ‘connecting the dots’ is simply inexcusable today. The Intelligence community and other organizations must be FORCED to share information and failure to do so should be grounds for dismissal and possibly criminal prosecution.

  • Anonymous on 01.14.2010 at 1:02 pm

    security is needed only to keep everyone calm

    When I got back from vacations a few days ago, I opened my backpack I had used as hand luggage on the flight. I found fireworks there, which I had bought for New Year and which I had forgotten to take out before the flight. Fireworks! You know, explosives. They went unnoticed, despite the fact that my backpack was manually searched and X-Rayed 2 times throughout the journey.

  • Hadley on 01.16.2010 at 5:56 pm


    Let’s all face it. The people who want to kill us fit a certain profile. Young men or arabic descent, 20-35. Behavioral profiling that also targets this group with extra scrutiny is a must for safe travel. El Al has been doing it for years, and they have lists that they can share with the US as their intelligence partners, Israel’s Mossad, is the world’s best in the area of terrorism and terrorists. They know they are coming before they get to the airport. They screen the passenger lists of every incoming and departing plane that leaves their country, and check them against their own lists of terrorists, and other intelligence. They know people want to kill them, and they act accordingly. They hire smart people who are educated and motivated, not soon-to-be-unionized TSA personnel, half of whom are out to lunch. They are waiting for the terrorists way before they get there. We need to be more proactive, have better intelligence and commmunication between agencies, just as the good Chief says, though he hedges a bit for fear of offending anyone. It’s that attitude that gets people killed. It’s time we offended a few people.
    BTW, nice tie, Tom!

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