Organizers of National Opt Out Day, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when air travelers were urged to opt out of the full-body scanners at security checkpoints and instead submit to full-body patdowns—were outfoxed by the TSA. The government pre-empted the protest by turning off the machines in most airports during the Thanksgiving weekend. Everyone went through the metal detectors, just as before.
Now that Thanksgiving is over, the machines are back on and the "enhanced" pat-downs have resumed. I suspect that more people would prefer to have naked images of themselves seen by TSA agents in another room, than have themselves intimately touched by a TSA agent right in front of them.
But now, the TSA is in a bind. Regardless of whatever lobbying came before, or whatever former DHS officials had a financial interest in these scanners, the TSA has spent billions on those scanners, claiming they’re essential. But because people can opt out, the alternate manual method must be equally effective; otherwise, the terrorists could just opt out. If they make the pat-downs less invasive, it would be the same as admitting the scanners aren’t essential. Senior officials would get fired over that.
So not counting inconsequential modifications to demonstrate they’re "listening," the pat-downs will continue. And they’ll continue for everyone: children, abuse survivors, rape survivors, urostomy bag wearers, people in wheelchairs. It has to be that way; otherwise, the terrorists could simply adapt. They’d hide their explosives on their children or in their urostomy bags. They’d recruit rape survivors, abuse survivors, or seniors. They’d dress as pilots. They’d sneak their PETN through airport security using the very type of person who isn’t being screened.
And PETN is what the TSA is looking for these days. That’s pentaerythritol tetranitrate, the plastic explosive that both the Shoe Bomber and the Underwear Bomber attempted but failed to detonate. It’s what was mailed from Yemen. It’s in Iraq and Afghanistan. Guns and traditional bombs are passé; PETN is the terrorist tool of the future.
The problem is that no scanners or puffers can detect PETN; only swabs and dogs work. What the TSA hopes is that they will detect the bulge if someone is hiding a wad of it on their person. But they won’t catch PETN hidden in a body cavity. That doesn’t have to be as gross as you’re imagining; you can hide PETN in your mouth. A terrorist can go through the scanners a dozen times with bits in his mouth each time, and assemble a bigger bomb on the other side. Or he can roll it thin enough to be part of a garment, and sneak it through that way. These tricks aren’t new. In the days after the Underwear Bomber was stopped, a scanner manufacturer admitted that the machines might not have caught him.
So what’s next? Strip searches? Body cavity searches? TSA Administrator John Pistole said there would be no body cavity searches for now, but his reasons make no sense. He said that the case widely reported as being a body cavity bomb might not actually have been. While that appears to be true, what does that have to do with future bombs? He also said that even body cavity bombs would need "external initiators" that the TSA would be able to detect.
Do you think for a minute that the TSA can detect these "external initiators"? Do you think that if a terrorist took a laptop—or better yet, a less-common piece of electronics gear—and removed the insides and replaced them with a timer, a pressure sensor, a simple contact switch, or a radio frequency switch, the TSA guy behind the X-ray machine monitor would detect it? How about if those components were distributed over a few trips through airport security. On the other hand, if we believe the TSA can magically detect these "external initiators" so effectively that they make body-cavity searches unnecessary, why do we need the full-body scanners?
Either PETN is a danger that must be searched for, or it isn’t. Pistole was being either ignorant or evasive.
Once again, the TSA is covering their own asses by implementing security-theater measures to prevent the previous attack while ignoring any threats of future attacks. It’s the same thinking that caused them to ban box cutters after 9/11, screen shoes after Richard Reid, limit liquids after that London gang, and—I kid you not—ban printer cartridges over 16 ounces after they were used to house package bombs from Yemen. They act like the terrorists are incapable of thinking creatively, while the terrorists repeatedly demonstrate that can always come up with a new approach that circumvents the old measures.
On the plus side, PETN is very hard to get to explode. The pre-9/11 screening procedures, looking for obvious guns and bombs, forced the terrorists to build inefficient fusing mechanisms. We saw this when Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber, used bottles of liquid and a syringe and 20 minutes in the bathroom to assemble his device, then set his pants on fire—and still failed to ignite his PETN-filled underwear. And when he failed, the passengers quickly subdued him.
The truth is that exactly two things have made air travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing cockpit doors and convincing passengers they need to fight back. The TSA should continue to screen checked luggage. They should start screening airport workers. And then they should return airport security to pre-9/11 levels and let the rest of their budget be used for better purposes. Investigation and intelligence is how we’re going to prevent terrorism, on airplanes and elsewhere. It’s how we caught the liquid bombers. It’s how we found the Yemeni printer-cartridge bombs. And it’s our best chance at stopping the next serious plot.
Because if a group of well-planned and well-funded terrorist plotters makes it to the airport, the chance is pretty low that those blue-shirted crotch-groping water-bottle-confiscating TSA agents are going to catch them. The agents are trying to do a good job, but the deck is so stacked against them that their job is impossible. Airport security is the last line of defense, and it’s not a very good one.
We have a job here, too, and it’s to be indomitable in the face of terrorism. The goal of terrorism is to terrorize us: to make us afraid, and make our government do exactly what the TSA is doing. When we react out of fear, the terrorists succeed even when their plots fail. But if we carry on as before, the terrorists fail—even when their plots succeed.
This essay originally appeared on The Atlantic website.
Posted on December 3, 2010 at 6:20 AM •