Rethinking Airport Security
BU’s top cop and former Logan antiterrorism chief: “We’re chasing our tail.”
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?
Robbins: 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 firstname.lastname@example.org Comments