Reassessing Airport Security

News that the Transportation Security Administration missed a whopping 95% of guns and bombs in recent airport security "red team" tests was justifiably shocking. It's clear that we're not getting value for the $7 billion we're paying the TSA annually.

But there's another conclusion, inescapable and disturbing to many, but good news all around: we don't need $7 billion worth of airport security. These results demonstrate that there isn't much risk of airplane terrorism, and we should ratchet security down to pre-9/11 levels.

We don't need perfect airport security. We just need security that's good enough to dissuade someone from building a plot around evading it. If you're caught with a gun or a bomb, the TSA will detain you and call the FBI. Under those circumstances, even a medium chance of getting caught is enough to dissuade a sane terrorist. A 95% failure rate is too high, but a 20% one isn't.

For those of us who have been watching the TSA, the 95% number wasn't that much of a surprise. The TSA has been failing these sorts of tests since its inception: failures in 2003, a 91% failure rate at Newark Liberty International in 2006, a 75% failure rate at Los Angeles International in 2007, more failures in 2008. And those are just the public test results; I'm sure there are many more similarly damning reports the TSA has kept secret out of embarrassment.

Previous TSA excuses were that the results were isolated to a single airport, or not realistic simulations of terrorist behavior. That almost certainly wasn't true then, but the TSA can't even argue that now. The current test was conducted at many airports, and the testers didn't use super-stealthy ninja-like weapon-hiding skills.

This is consistent with what we know anecdotally: the TSA misses a lot of weapons. Pretty much everyone I know has inadvertently carried a knife through airport security, and some people have told me about guns they mistakenly carried on airplanes. The TSA publishes statistics about how many guns it detects; last year, it was 2,212. This doesn't mean the TSA missed 44,000 guns last year; a weapon that is mistakenly left in a carry-on bag is going to be easier to detect than a weapon deliberately hidden in the same bag. But we now know that it's not hard to deliberately sneak a weapon through.

So why is the failure rate so high? The report doesn't say, and I hope the TSA is going to conduct a thorough investigation as to the causes. My guess is that it's a combination of things. Security screening is an incredibly boring job, and almost all alerts are false alarms. It's very hard for people to remain vigilant in this sort of situation, and sloppiness is inevitable.

There are also technology failures. We know that current screening technologies are terrible at detecting the plastic explosive PETN -- that's what the underwear bomber had -- and that a disassembled weapon has an excellent chance of getting through airport security. We know that some items allowed through airport security make excellent weapons.

The TSA is failing to defend us against the threat of terrorism. The only reason they've been able to get away with the scam for so long is that there isn't much of a threat of terrorism to defend against.

Even with all these actual and potential failures, there have been no successful terrorist attacks against airplanes since 9/11. If there were lots of terrorists just waiting for us to let our guard down to destroy American planes, we would have seen attacks -- attempted or successful -- after all these years of screening failures. No one has hijacked a plane with a knife or a gun since 9/11. Not a single plane has blown up due to terrorism.

Terrorists are much rarer than we think, and launching a terrorist plot is much more difficult than we think. I understand this conclusion is counterintuitive, and contrary to the fearmongering we hear every day from our political leaders. But it's what the data shows.

This isn't to say that we can do away with airport security altogether. We need some security to dissuade the stupid or impulsive, but any more is a waste of money. The very rare smart terrorists are going to be able to bypass whatever we implement or choose an easier target. The more common stupid terrorists are going to be stopped by whatever measures we implement.

Smart terrorists are very rare, and we're going to have to deal with them in two ways. One, we need vigilant passengers -- that's what protected us from both the shoe and the underwear bombers. And two, we're going to need good intelligence and investigation -- that's how we caught the liquid bombers in their London apartments.

The real problem with airport security is that it's only effective if the terrorists target airplanes. I generally am opposed to security measures that require us to correctly guess the terrorists' tactics and targets. If we detect solids, the terrorists will use liquids. If we defend airports, they bomb movie theaters. It's a lousy game to play, because we can't win.

We should demand better results out of the TSA, but we should also recognize that the actual risk doesn't justify their $7 billion budget. I'd rather see that money spent on intelligence and investigation -- security that doesn't require us to guess the next terrorist tactic and target, and works regardless of what the terrorists are planning next.

This essay previously appeared on CNN.com.

Posted on June 11, 2015 at 6:10 AM • 50 Comments

Comments

keinerJune 11, 2015 6:25 AM

What did the GCHQ head say about the cooperation with their US-counterparts:

"They had the money, we had the brains, it was a perfect job"

Cheers!

Joshua BowmanJune 11, 2015 7:42 AM

"If we defend airports, they bomb movie theaters."

Or shoot them up with automatic weapons. Yet I haven't suddenly seen a federal agency frisking me at every theater turnstile....

Bob S.June 11, 2015 7:57 AM

Bruce, you have nailed this TSA/air security thing time and again. This comment is one of those times.

In a sane world they would put you in charge of air security. I'd wager in six months we'd have safer skies and happy travelers, too.

INSTEAD, it looks like some heavily medal-ed military guy will be placed in charge to get the grunts in shape, flagging and tagging anything that "looks funny" creating even more obstacles and annoyances for travelers as well as air industry staff.

From time to time someone suggests a federally guaranteed terrorism insurance program so that anyone harmed by a terrorist attack becomes eligible for a sizable award, maybe several million dollars. That would ease worries of travelers, I think, making traveling like a lotto game, sort of. Reducing the more onerous security measures would seem more palatable that way, too.

I like the idea.

Recently I read the chances of an American citizen being hurt or killed by a terrorist in the USA is about 1/4 the chance of being hit by lightning.

If every known plot that was thwarted was included, it would STILL be less than a lightning strike.

Terrorism is a manageable risk.

AdamJune 11, 2015 8:00 AM

I just look at those enormous queues of people lined up to go through one security checkpoint or another and think the problem has only moved to somewhere else.

AnuraJune 11, 2015 8:12 AM

The way I see it is this: if you manage to get onto the plane, the precautions taken with the cockpit are probably significantly more effective than the security checkpoints, so really the only option is to blow up the plane in flight. If you do that, it's probably going to take at least 3 months before it is even confirmed that it was a terrorist attack, and by that time the impact of the news is small. Now, you have a security checkpoint at the airport itself, and it has more people than a plane if you go at the right time, and tightly packed too.

A terrorist or group of terrorists attacking those checkpoints, either with bombs or guns, or a combination thereof, can potentially kill more people than on the plane itself, and they don't even have to worry about going through security. Not to mention that the emotional impact to the public will be much higher as they see the images of those killed and maimed by the attack.

JBJune 11, 2015 8:38 AM

I always hear people saying "Terrorists could just detonate the bomb in the security line," and yet that has happened zero times.

In general, it seems that "blowing up a bomb in a densely-populated area" is (especially compared to using guns, at least in the USA) for whatever reason not a favored tactic of terrorists/crazy people attacking the West (I count the 2013 Boston Marathon, 2010 (failed) Times Square, 2007 London, 2004 Madrid, and 1995 Oklahoma City in the past 2 decades). On the other hand, that tactic was heavily used during the Palestinian Intifadas.

Anyone want to hazard a guess as to why that is?

black-eyeJune 11, 2015 8:46 AM

"Under those circumstances, even a medium chance of getting caught is enough to dissuade a sane terrorist. A 95% failure rate is too high, but a 20% one isn't."

Islamic terrorists think that Allah will help them succeed against all odds. They will still make the attempt with a 20% chance of success for them.

zJune 11, 2015 8:55 AM

These kinds of security measures only get dumber; they never get smarter.

Let's say Joe Politician decides to take this essay to heart and is somehow successful in reverting airport security to pre-9/11 levels. What happens if there is an attack using an airplane or at an airport? He is done in politics. Forever. So is his party. It doesn't matter if the current TSA security wouldn't have caught the attacker anyway. It doesn't matter if the terrorists could just as easily have gone after a movie theater, shopping mall, school, or any other easy target instead. The media would crucify him, the opposing party would burn him alive, and the public would believe it 100%. The most effective security measure in the world is always the one the opposing party just got rid of.

That's why once a security measure is implemented, it is almost never eliminated, even if it is totally worthless, expensive, and/or unconstitutional. Nobody will take the risk of being the one blamed in the remote chance something does happen.

RobJune 11, 2015 9:38 AM

" Under those circumstances, even a medium chance of getting caught is enough to dissuade a sane terrorist."

A sane individual. A group will just keep sending until it works.
How many sane people try to hijack an airline?

I agree with the overall point that we can ratchet things down, but assuming sanity, either institutional or individual doesn't seem wise.

UhuJune 11, 2015 9:45 AM

@JB: I think you forgot the Domodedovo International Airport bombing:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domodedovo_International_Airport_bombing

As to why "blowing up a bomb in a densely-populated area" is not a favored tactic: well, there simply is not that much terrorism in "the West". Or do you know other more favored tactics?

@black-eye: Ok, sure, but why then are there not more terrorists? I think there are two explanations (and neither involves the TSA):

  1. there are not that many terrorists (people willing to indiscriminantly killing other people, and to associate with an organization to do so)
  2. Certain intelligence measures are effective: it seems that in many countries people travelling to certain areas in the world are automatically checked for simpathies for terrorism and connections to terrorists. I think this can be done without blanked surveillance (be specific in who you target) and without consequences for the innocent (the person visiting family in Pakistan will be checked, but if not links are found, she will not be put on a no-fly list).

TimHJune 11, 2015 9:45 AM

@Bob S.
"I'd wager in six months we'd have safer skies"

A key point is that we already HAVE safe skies, despite the inefficiency of the TSA. "Safer" has little meaning.

TimHJune 11, 2015 9:49 AM

@Rob
"...assuming sanity, either institutional or individual doesn't seem wise."

Yet every country's road system presumes the sanity (or sobriety) of every driver, and people have died avoidably for years, yet this is still the status quo.

Bob PaddockJune 11, 2015 9:55 AM

XKCD TSA Cartoon, this could be my late wife Karen and I (I design Li battery chargers for the day job)

TSA Bag Check and the TSA Response.

My late wife had just had spine surgery and TSA wanted to "pat down" her incision. She adamantly refused creating an incident at LAX. The details are in her Journal, that is now required reading at Duke School of Medicine.

If there is someway I can help the TSA disband please let me know...

GerryJune 11, 2015 10:17 AM

Sure, the TSA is about security theater. But it's also a massive jobs program that benefits patronage distributors on both sides of the aisle. Congress doesn't really care whether the TSA is effective as long as the majority of travelers are placated and thousands of jobs are available

jeffoJune 11, 2015 10:24 AM

@z

You're right that anyone who reduced the ridiculous levels of security would be crucified by the media and bloviating politicians at the first incident. I just wish the opposite was true. If a serious attack happened tomorrow, those asking how this happened in spite of all of our expensive and invasive practices would be told that this is no time for such questions and that we need to focus on preventing this from happening again, meaning more expense and more invasive methods, not to mention more multi-trillion dollar wars.

It's a maddening, downward spiral that can only lead to a police state or national bankruptcy -- probably both.

John MacdonaldJune 11, 2015 10:53 AM

@TimH "every country's road system presumes the sanity (or sobriety) of every driver"...

They generally, to a large extent, assume very low competance, with rules that prevent the exercise of competance because they also allow the exercise of incompetance.

Consider the difference between a stop sign and a yeild sign. Both demand that you observe that other traffic has the right of way. A stop sign, additionally requires you to come to a complete stop, regardless of the nature of the opposing traffic. If driver competance were the accepted norm, most of the time a yeild sign would be used with a stop sign reserved for intersections where it is difficult to determine the opposing traffic until you are right at the intersection (and especially in optical illusion cases where it appears you have a clear view but don't reall). But after a few years with a yield sign, on incompetant driver causes a well-publicised major accident and the sign is changed to a stop sign. There are almost no yield signs anywhere. And yet, the enforced stop at a stop sign, when it is not really necessary, can actually increase the hazard. Going from a stop to traffic speed takes longer than going from a rolling movement (that would be capable of stopping if needed) up to traffic speed, so there is a longer time when the previously stopped vehicle is moving at a slower speed than the other traffic.

Some jurisdictions ban right turns on red traffic lights. They all ban any other progression on red lights. Even at 3:00 AM when it is clearly visible that there is no opposing traffic for a huge difference, you are not allowed to treat the red light as if it were a stop sign.

North American roads almost never use roundabouts (or traffic circles) despite their being far more effective in most circumstances than stop signs or traffic lights.

wumpusJune 11, 2015 11:04 AM

Oddly enough, a different website brought up thoughts on Elon Musk's hyperloop idea. While it was largely panned (I suspect Mr. Musk could pull it off with the stated funding and options to buy required land at cost, neither could possibly happen in the US), I pointed out a superior option for reducing US travel time.

Eliminate the TSA.

Cost: -$8 Billion/year (plus outlandish costs to shut the thing down, because government).
Time savings: roughly .8 billion hours (at least one hour per US flight).

While this might not be politically feasible, rolling back the security theater till roughly post-OKC bombing might be reasonable.

JBJune 11, 2015 11:15 AM

Uhu,
At least in the USA, purposeful attempts at causing mass casualty incidents (either by terrorists or crazy people) usually take the form of either shooting with guns (Fort Hood, Aurora, Sandy Hook, DC Sniper, etc) or attacks on airplanes themselves (9/11, shoe bomber, underwear bomber).

My point is that, for whatever reason, nobody has tried to attack the long lines at security checkins, despite ample opportunity and enough attacks of other types that one would think that terrorists would have attacked those lines if they really wanted to.

My question is, given the above, why don't they want to?

JohnPJune 11, 2015 11:28 AM

The TSA needs to be privatized again. Making them federal officials was a mistake.

I'd rather see the $7B spent on affordable GigE internet to my house.

Plus the airport security fee needs to be lowered to stop all the purchasing of bogus scanning equipment.

65535June 11, 2015 11:45 AM

“It's clear that we're not getting value for the $7 billion we're paying the TSA annually.” –Bruce S.

I agree.

Further, I would guess the $7 billion dollar figure doesn’t include costs of wasted time of business passengers, graft within the TSA, passenger items expropriated, physical and psychological suffering from TSA groping and intimidation, loss of business to airlines because people hate the TSA and on and on.

@ Adam

“…look at those enormous queues of people lined up to go through one security checkpoint or another and think the problem has only moved to somewhere else.”

I concur.

The risk has been moved to a new location. These cattle lines are targets for terrorists. Any large group of people could be a target. Should we have TSA agents at crowded movie theaters – no.

@ Uhu

“@JB: I think you forgot the Domodedovo International Airport bombing”

Yes, and add the hand grenade attacks [fragmentary bombs] on the Rome and Vienna airports:

“…four Arab gunmen walked to the shared ticket counter for Israel's El Al Airlines and Trans World Airlines at Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport outside Rome, Italy, fired assault rifles and threw grenades. They killed 16 and wounded 99, including American diplomat Wes Wessels, before three of the attackers were killed by El-Al security, while the remaining one, Mohammed Sharam, was wounded and captured by the Italian police… Minutes later, at Schwechat Airport (Vienna International Airport) in Vienna, Austria, three terrorists carried out a similar attack. Hand grenades were thrown into crowds of passengers queuing to check in for a flight to Tel Aviv, killing two people instantly and wounding 39 others. A third victim died on 22 January 1986, of hand grenade wounds sustained in the attack. After the attack, the terrorists fled by car, and Austrian police gave chase.” - Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rome_and_Vienna_airport_attacks

@ Anura

“…precautions taken with the cockpit are probably significantly more effective than the security checkpoints…”

That is true.

“A terrorist or group of terrorists attacking those checkpoints, either with bombs or guns, or a combination thereof, can potentially kill more people than on the plane itself, and they don't even have to worry about going through security.” –Anura

Very true and you can add gasoline and propane to the weapons list.

“…2007 Glasgow International Airport attack was a terrorist ramming attack which occurred on Saturday 30 June 2007, at 15:11 BST, when a dark green Jeep Cherokee loaded with propane canisters was driven into the glass doors of the Glasgow International Airport terminal and set ablaze.” -Wikipedia

@ jeffo

“[TSA and Spinning done in the media] It's a maddening, downward spiral that can only lead to a police state or national bankruptcy -- probably both.”

How true.

The terrorists have all ready partially won the war by causing at least $7 billion USA tax dollars to be uselessly spent yearly on the TSA – not to mention the tangential irritation to the average business traveler scratching to make living – without missing their plane.

Only a certain group people are benefiting from the TSA expenditures – people in the government and around government. Those would be the politicians [who rarely go through TSA check points] and hand out lush funds to their friends in the TSA hiring infrastructure and the over-paid TSA cattle prodders.

sleeperJune 11, 2015 12:04 PM

"[...]precautions taken with the cockpit are probably significantly more effective than the security checkpoints[...]" (Anura)

Although, as the recent Germanwings disaster showed, the cockpit can be secured too much, as the co-pilot was able to lock out the pilot and crash the plane. Obviously, passenger screening is useless when the attacker is part of the crew. This might be a case where "intelligence and investigation" (Bruce) could have helped.

keinerJune 11, 2015 12:10 PM

@sleeper

What would it have helped? The co-pilot was not an extremist. He did his weekly shopping the day before he crashed. Ordered cars. Was visiting doctors for insomnia and ocular problems, but no doctor found anything.

Which profiler would have kept him from flying?

Snarki, child of LokiJune 11, 2015 12:13 PM

So, I guess someone is catching on to the growing AQ-TSA chapter.

There hasn't been serious military action on US soil for over a century. So no left over land-mines, mortars, satchel charges, RPGs, etc.

But tons and tons of powerful firearms, easily available at your local gun show.

Clive RobinsonJune 11, 2015 12:20 PM

@ jb,

My question is, given the above, why don't they want to?

Because terrorism is actually a business for both sides.

As has been known for several decades the way to stop organised terrorism is not to "gut/behead the organisation" which is the Pres OB's rather idiotic course, but "cut off the funding". No money, means terrorists have to work for a living like the majority of people.

Whilst it does not stop lone nutters saving up, even they tend to have jobs to get the money to save.

For organised terrorism the costs are very high often in the millions of dollars a year. They get this money in various ways, but more than often it's from donations... for this to happen they need to have people sympathetic to the cause, not to the families of burnt mangled women and children who have no real connection to those the cause is against.

Where you do tend to find people being killed indiscriminately it's those who can easily be linked to what the cause is about. It's why anybody in Israel is "fair game" and mainly christian tourists in economicaly poor areas where the "tourist dollar" can be seen to be funding those the cause is against, and the tourists religion can be used as further argument with regards demonizing them.

Bob S.June 11, 2015 12:50 PM

@Jeffo

Re: the "downward spiral that can only lead to a police state or national bankruptcy"

There are strong arguments we already ruled by an oppressive police state based on a foundation of mass surveillance and executive agencies self-entitled to exempt themselves from the rule of law, in the name of security. The violence and force is supplied by out of control police agencies.

As for bankruptcy, there is a growing chorus of financial gurus who claim catastrophic bankruptcy of the USA is all but assured and very soon. In short, we are really broke and the system is broken.

(One article I recently read claims 60% of adult persons in the USA are either supported by a government program or a government payroll. Not sure I believe but when you start to count your neighbors who work for the government, have a government pension, work for a defense contractor, are living on SS, etc...you begin to wonder.)

@TimH, I think Bruce would make the skies "safer". All he would need to do is beat the 95% failure rate. Point well taken, however.

Juan_ValdezJune 11, 2015 1:13 PM

Possibly there have been no checkpoint bombings (or similar) because the legacy of 9/11 has turned out to be the gradual implosion of the democratic and "free" West--an outcome that is surely very appealing to Al Qaeda et al. Civil liberties are being grossly violated, fundamental principles are being trashed, and the populace is losing more and more respect for and confidence in its leadership. The last one is very important insofar as it erodes public support for continued Western military action in the Middle East. Al Qaeda et al. need only sit back and watch the West destroy itself. Why waste resources on a terror attack when the Western governments are effectively doing your work for you? The Western governments have been successfully terrorized.

I daresay that, if the US (for example) showed any signs of developing some sense with respect to terrorism or reestablishing the value of civil liberties (though huge cuts to the TSA budget, for example), Al Qaeda (or whomever) might respond with a checkpoint bombing. It would probably take only one such bombing to set the US back on the implosion path--unless the US has developed resilience as well as sense.


LessThanObviousJune 11, 2015 1:40 PM

Clearly there is some failure to make proper use of the technical tools already available and in use in screening. That can be fixed without a whole lot more expense except that we probably need better quality staffing in the TSA. I would hope the better staff could be paid for by eliminating a bunch of waste and staffing that isn't needed.

Psychology I think is one of our underutilized assets. I go through a lot of airports and I've noticed one agent where you can just tell he is more engaged, he is more actively testing the behavior of the passengers he is screening. He doesn't just check your ID and boarding pass, there is much more going on in the interaction than the few words exchanged would let on, I think this is what we need to do more. If someone is doing something bad, more often than not it isn't going to be just another day to that individual. There will be subtle clues in their behavior. I think this is why the testing in airports also yields such sorry results. Someone testing the system who is authorized to do so, has no reason to be afraid and also has no reason to be angry or anxious, nor will they display the detached emotionless demeanor that sometimes accompanies the knowledge that one is soon to meet their maker. The same goes for those who bring in contraband by accident, they have no reason to behave in any odd way because they are unaware of their own action. One other hand when someone knows they are trying to get away with something significant, humans are terrible at hiding subtle clues that something is amiss, especially when forced to socially engage with the people tasked with identifying them. This would be true even more so, I imagine if the individual can tell they are dealing with an intelligent and engaged adversary with authority.

revJune 11, 2015 2:16 PM

It seems like the "red team" was setting the TSA up for failure by looking for things they they're unlikely to encounter on the job (guns and bombs). I'm sure that if they had tried to bring bottled water on to the planes instead, the TSA would have been much more successful at foiling the simulated plot.

xyzzyJune 11, 2015 2:37 PM

These tests have been going on and have had a 90%+ failure rate since long before 9/11. The major thing that changed is that now that the TSA is a federal agency its harder to hide the failures from the public.

MichaelJune 11, 2015 2:59 PM

For what it's worth, according to the first guest on last week's "Real Time with Bill Maher" on HBO (I don't recall his name), one reason the red team was so successful was because they knew all of the TSA's security weaknesses ahead of time so it was very easy to subvert them.

tyrJune 11, 2015 3:04 PM


If you think of government as an economic flywheel which
redistributes the taxes then the bloated and incompetent
TSA serves a purpose. Switching their budget to the Post
Office would serve the citizens better, but carrying and
sorting mail is a lot like useful work.

If you made one simple law the problems of the airport
would disappear. No one is allowed to fly if they do not
have a pilots liscense. Suddenly the skies are empty.
This pre-supposes a society that obeys its laws but
that seems to be in short supply this week.

Off topic: Saruman has died and Ornette Coleman too.
If life extension succeeds you might be able to hear
Ornette in the public domain in a hundred years.
Lee's films will have crumbled to dust by then.

JBJune 11, 2015 4:10 PM

Michael,
Any terrorist plot that is sufficiently well-planned to avoid prior detection by the FBI, NSA, etc would find it no trouble at all to obtain equal knowledge of the TSA's weaknesses.

Cofer P. BlackJune 11, 2015 8:03 PM

Investigation sounds good, but next thing you know you've got ass-wipes like Niketh V. Velamoor and Preet Bhaharara, who can't even lock up a banker or a CIA drug-money launderer, running around investigating protected speech because it scares their cowardly crooked judge.

https://popehat.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Revised-Grand-Jury-Subpoena.pdf

Before you can rely on investigation, you must eradicate the investigators who spent the last 7 years knuckling under to thieves and traitors. We're going to kill them. We're going to put their heads on sticks. We're going to rock their world.

JustinJune 11, 2015 9:13 PM

@ Cofer P. Black • June 11, 2015 8:03 PM

Excuse me, but you do not advocate sending a federal judge through a wood chipper on a public form. Nor do you advocate putting the heads of federal investigators on sticks.

On a side note, this kind of thing is why we don't really have strong anonymity on the web....

qqwerttyJune 12, 2015 4:23 AM

Although there are many valid and interesting points being made in these comments, it surprises me that discussions about security inevitably seem to take the existence of terrorists, as well as their intention to attack "the west", as a given, as if it was a fundamental law of nature that cannot be changed.
Of course, there will always be a few crazy people that seek violence for violence' sake, but those are a tiny, tiny minority. Most people who are ready to use violence today were not born that way, but rather the cricumstances in which they grew up, or where trust into later in life, made them feel like this was the only available solution.
Thinking that security starts at the airport (or the movie theater, etc.) is like thinking baseball starts with a runner on third. Of course, we're gonna try and stop the homerun, but if we want a comprehensive and effective security policy, we also have to think about how he got there in the first place.
Studies have clearly shown that people who live surrounded by violence are more likely to resort to violence themselves. Somebody who has a family, a stable job, access to food and education and healthcare for them and their friends and relatives, is much less likely to throw all that away in a suicide attack than someone who has lost all those things to violence.
If we would spend the 7bn of the TSA in humanitarian aid, or the trillions of dollars of the "war on terror", that would certainly be a much more effective security policy than trying to bomb countries into "democracy". In the last decade, we hunted and killed half a dozen "bad men", with the promise that "once he's gone, everything will be better". But instead, everything just got worse. Even if there aren't (and there really never have been) a lot of terrorist attacks on "the west", these have become much more common in all the countries were we have intervened militarily, and they have costs millions of lives, and created thousands of potential "terrorists". Justifying, in return, the spending of even more money on fighting them. It is a vicious circle that creates the insecurity it is supposed to stop, and breaking it is the only security policy that makes any sense. Because, after all is said and done, "terrorists" are people too. We were ready to invade half a dozen countries after 9/11. So how come we always seem so shocked that the people of those countries are willing to retaliate against us too?

CelosJune 12, 2015 5:28 AM

@Bruce:

"Sane Terrorist"? I do not think these exist. Terrorism is routinely counter-productive, and hence an insane act in itself.

SteveJune 12, 2015 9:27 AM

Here's a crazy idea:

Let's stop invading other people's countries and blowing up their citizens with remote controlled killing machines. Let's stop clandestine operations aimed at overthrowing popularly elected goverments (even ones the politics of which we may not necessarily approve but are of no credible threat to us). Let's stop kidnapping people and torturing them in secret "black sites" or subletting the wet work to places like Syria or Egypt when we suddenly get squeamish. Let's stop supporting colonialists, dictators, and oppressors out of some sort of demented realpolitik.

And, especially, let's stay out of the affairs of nations and regions of the world where we haven't the slightest clue about how they operate and whose cultures are radically different from our own.

Let's just stop making enemies unnecessarily.

Yeah, it's a crazy idea, but it might just work.

Then maybe we could get on an airplane without undergoing a body cavity search because we'd be fairly certain that there wasn't some crazy fool with a grudge that wanted to kill a bunch of use because of some ridiculous ideology.

ChelloveckJune 12, 2015 10:31 AM

@JB: The only reason I can think that nobody has bombed a security line is that there really isn't a horde of rabid terrorists out there looking to destroy our freedoms. One or two security point bombs and we would collectively wet ourselves in our effort to shred the Bill Of Rights in the name of safety.

@Anura: "...precautions taken with the cockpit are probably significantly more effective than the security checkpoints..." The passengers are even more significantly effective at stopping an attack. Prior to the 9/11 attacks the protocol was to give hijackers what they want and negotiate for release of the hostages. Everybody walks away. Now that people understand that everybody walking away is probably not on the table, passengers have shown that they're willing and able to stop an attack in progress. The only successful form of attack remaining is one that incapacitates everyone before they become aware of it.

SkepticalJune 12, 2015 11:19 AM


A few things...

First, about:

Smart terrorists are very rare, and we're going to have to deal with them in two ways. One, we need vigilant passengers -- that's what protected us from both the shoe and the underwear bombers. And two, we're going to need good intelligence and investigation -- that's how we caught the liquid bombers in their London apartments.

There's another factor: disrupting, degrading, and destroying the infrastructure that can encourage and support the development of more skilled terrorists. Prior to 9/11, al Qaeda was able to run training camps without much fear of attack, recruit more openly, and raise funds more openly (either via donation or via 'business'). This enabled them to thoroughly assess potential operatives, develop and more deeply indoctrinate the most 'promising' with training and support, and so forth.

That's no longer the case. There are no safe havens. And that means, all else being equal, that you've reduced the number of "professional" terrorists making it to that last security line in front of their target.

Second,

Some of the comments above suggest that terrorism is all merely blowback from violent foreign policies - as though we live in a world where, if you are peaceful, then you will not be attacked. It is remarkably naive.

Third,

TSA employees obviously need more regular testing and training. These exercises should be continuous and ongoing, to the point where a TSA employee can expect, on any given week, to encounter someone attempting to smuggle a bomb or components thereof through his or her checkpoint (just make sure someone or something can immediately flash "drill" if the employee successfully detects, so that no one is actually hurt by the employee's reaction).

In other words, to render the current force more effective, apportion a larger percentage of TSA's budget to training, especially via the use of red teams.

Clive RobinsonJune 12, 2015 4:37 PM

@ Skeptical,

- as though we live in a world where, if you are peaceful, then you will not be attacked. It is remarkably naive.

There is quite a difference between "speaking quietly and carrying a big stick" and "shouting the odds as you beat people into the ground".

One gets you respect the other gets you resentment at best, understanding the difference is important.

GooeyJune 12, 2015 5:02 PM

@Michael:

Look up John Corbett's video.

@others:

It is a fallacy to assume that terrorists are uneducated, insane, oppressed, etc. There is counterterrorism research that addresses this.

JustinJune 12, 2015 5:58 PM

@qqwertty

it surprises me that discussions about security inevitably seem to take the existence of terrorists, as well as their intention to attack "the west", as a given, as if it was a fundamental law of nature that cannot be changed.

I actually had a discussion some years ago with a would-be terrorist in real life. Somehow I had somewhat befriended him, and the young man insisted that I read the Koran instead of the Bible, that a man was permitted up to four wives, and that hashish was permitted although alcohol was forbidden. Then he confided in me,

"I want to commit suicide."
"Why?" I asked him.
"I want to blow something up."
"Why do you want to do that?"
"I hate the U.S. government."
"Why do you hate the U.S. government?"
"It's jihad."
"Jihad. What is jihad?"
"It's jihad. Jihad is war."

This particular conversation did not get any further than that. But what do you do? Not all Muslims are terrorists, and I hate stereotypes, but these people do exist, and they do have that terrorist mindset or mentality. It is deeply ingrained. They have sworn themselves to jihad against the U.S. government, and, in effect, the U.S. people. Appeasing them, or giving them good jobs, healthcare, education, benefits etc. is not going to change that. We have become their mortal enemies by not subjecting ourselves to Shari'a.

qqwerttyJune 13, 2015 12:41 AM

@Justin

They have sworn themselves to jihad against the U.S. government, and, in effect, the U.S. people. Appeasing them, or giving them good jobs, healthcare, education, benefits etc. is not going to change that.

I wasn't talking about reforming people who have already developed this kind of mindest, as much as stopping them from getting that far in the first place. Catching people who are ready to commit violence, or already have done so, is fine with me. But bombing whole countries because "there might be more of them" is the very process by which we create more of them.

There are thousands today living in refugee camp, for whom violence has become the norm. It's what they see everyday, and it starts looking to them as this is just what you do. Some of them might result to violence no matter what happens next. But a lot of them would very much like to be able to do things differently. I'm saying we should give them a chance to.

Also, even if that conversation didn't go any further, it might still make that person think about something new later on. It's easy to destroy things, building them takes a lot more time.

Wesley ParishJune 13, 2015 5:24 AM

A pack of wallies in New Zealand have descended into paranoia and want to drag the rest of us down the dark part into the oblivion that the US has rushed into ...

http://tvnz.co.nz/national-news/passengers-should-worried-pilots-call-greater-security-domestic-flights-6337317/video

They should reset the full passport DOB field of every New Zealand citizen to "Yesterday" while they're at it, just to be consistent.

(What is interesting is that these individuals agree that getting involved in the Middle Eastern Mess bequeathed to the world by the Dubbya/Typhoid Cheney Axis of Evil, increases New Zealand's security risk. A little bit more nous and forethought, and we might not have got involved in that mess in the first place. Trying the Dubbya/Typhoid Cheney Axis of Evil for Crimes against Humanity might go some way towards ameliorating it, but not sufficient. We'd need to try the Gulf Cooperation Council and the US government for Crimes against Humanity in funding the various armed extremist militia in the likes of Libya, Syria, Iraq ... fat chance of any such display of sanity ... )

SkepticalJune 13, 2015 9:46 PM


@Clive: There is quite a difference between "speaking quietly and carrying a big stick" and "shouting the odds as you beat people into the ground".

Targeted strikes against hostile terrorist organizations could spur resentment of the US in surrounded areas (as if the US were not already resented).

Targeted strikes could also demonstrate that the pipe dreams these terrorist organizations used to recruit are just that: pipe dreams.

2 days earlier, at ease on youtube with his bottle of Nutella, expounding the great cause of ISIS, its assured success (Western propaganda notwithstanding), and urging any "true Muslim" to join them.

2 days later, that same man, that same place, a smoking hole.

Invincible? Assured success? Perhaps not.

And in the bargain, key people in their organization begin to die; key knowledge becomes lost; key experience vanishes; different factions point their fingers, accession struggles become more likely, their ability to project external control suffers, information leaks - deliberately and accidentally, and coordination suffers.

It's not the sole element in US strategy, but, with respect to its place in that strategy and the ends sought, it is an effective, and very humane, one.

One gets you respect the other gets you resentment at best, understanding the difference is important.

It's less about whether they resent us than it is about how they view ISIS, and what happens to those views as ISIS weakens further.

Wesley ParishJune 14, 2015 3:15 AM

@S[k]eptical

I suppose this

Drone Strikes Turn Allies Into Enemies, Yemeni Says
http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/24/world/middleeast/judiciary-panel-hears-testimony-on-use-of-drones.html?_r=0

The man, Farea al-Muslimi, said his friends and neighbors used to know of the United States primarily through “my stories of the wonderful experiences I had” here. “Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the fear they feel at the drones over their heads. What the violent militants had failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.”

might have something to do with

Targeted strikes against hostile terrorist organizations could spur resentment of the US in surrounded areas (as if the US were not already resented).

Or is this phenomenon, grandiosely titled "Anti-Americanism" by those of unsound mind and even worse morals, something that occurs entirely independently of anything that the United States of America does?

rgaffJune 14, 2015 1:26 PM

@Gullible

Some of the comments above suggest that terrorism is all merely blowback from violent foreign policies - as though we live in a world where, if you are peaceful, then you will not be attacked. It is remarkably naive.

Because we all know that enraging people by bombing the snot out of them and droning and kidnapping and torturing them will NEVER make them want to target you more than before..... They'll just peaceably be cowed. Being enslaved by a foreign power is just the natural and proper state of mankind. Right.

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