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What's Wrong with Airport Security (and What to Do About It)

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airport security screen scanNotwithstanding the politics surrounding Janet Napolitano's botched statement and recanted statement, there's no question that the airline security system failed in an extremely broad fashion on Christmas Day.

And it wasn't only Christmas Day. Just a few days after that, a terminal in Newark airport was cleared completely for six hours on January 3 -- one of the biggest travel days of the holiday season -- after a (still) unidentified man slipped into the terminal through the exit-way when a guard stepped away from his post.

As more facts surface about the various breaches, we're finding out that the elaborate and extraordinarily chaotic and inconvenient security system we have all endured since 9/11 is more porous and less reliable than the entrance system at my kid's daycare.

Here is list of the blunders involved in just the past couple of weeks:
  • The monstrous list of names (reportedly over a half million strong) of purported terrorists catches 4-year-olds, but not an actual Al Qaeda-trained terrorist whose own father reported him to U.S. officials just a few weeks previously. (By the way, the TSA's response to the 4-year-old's plight isn't as reassuring as one might hope: she's not on the No Fly list, she is on the Selectee Watch List. Ah, of course! My bad, sorry. Uh, wait a minute, she's still a 4-year-old....)

  • The airport screening system that dings passengers with big belt buckles doesn't catch a guy who takes off his belt but has explosives in his shorts.

  • The Detroit flight terrorist was identified after the plane was in the air, but no notice was sent to the pilots of the aircraft. That this guy had a chance to spend a long time in a bathroom setting up is astounding.

  • The practice of interviewing potential threats after they arrive on U.S. soil, instead of before they get on a plane headed for U.S. airspace, proved completely inadequate.

  • There was a lot of sloppy work among "security" guards, who seemed to be doing as much hanging out as protecting their posts. Of course, the technology backing up those guards was a flop as well: the security camera at Newark was not working, and investigators had to use Continental's cameras to figure out what happened.

  • The TSA offers consistently inept responses in the hours after a scare such as this, during which they inevitably introduce measures that will inconvenience everyone in the system except for the people bent on destruction. (Example: the instant rule that there would be no pillows and blankets allowed in the final hour of a flight -- which just gives terrorists a very clear deadline before which they need to go into action. Yeesh.) And let's not forget that the aforementioned TSA directive was almost immediately leaked to the press.

  • I remain amazed by the insularity of the talking heads at Homeland Security, who must take charter planes everywhere they go; how else could they say this system was working?

  • Meanwhile, the wartime looters are already poised to make a financial killing on what seems to me an otherwise sensible solution to the individual screening process: full-body scanners. These machines are obscenely expensive, and taxpayers will be paying top dollar.

  • The TSA and Homeland Security are massive, essentially wasteful enterprises -- $300,000 spent on a gym, $500,000 on artwork and silk plants -- and yet we see short-staffing at airports during peak travel times.
The TSA explains away all the inconsistencies and outright failures in the system with the bald-faced dodge that they want the process to be unpredictable. I get that, but do they really want it to be so unpredictable that knives and guns pass through security?

Unfortunately, no one really believe all this stagecraft will keep us safe; already news outlets have posted theories about how a group of terrorists, each with three ounces of liquid explosives, could collect them all once through airport security and create a very effective bomb.

airport passengers air travelThe White House's briefing on the circumstances and events that allowed the attack to occur shows a system rife with systemic and human breakdowns alike. But the briefing also offers a daunting picture of the challenges faced by the intelligence community when targeting a single individual bent on an act of terror. The document also makes the point that countless other potential attacks have been averted; many of these we'll never know about, as it is in everyone's best interest that the how and why of the intelligence agencies that stopped it not be disclosed.

We Get It -- So What Do We Do About It?
The average politician might be surprised at how well the average traveler really understands the situation. If you have gone through airport security more than a handful of times, you have seen it all -- good and bad, efficient and inefficient, competent and incompetent, safety-conscious and ego-driven, sensible and absurd. You know that extra screenings of grannies, celebrities and families actually do happen, and that raving, argumentative people often cruise down the gangway almost unchallenged. Is there any way to fix this flawed and inefficient system? Following are my recommendations for government agencies, airlines and travelers alike.

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