America has spent billions on airport security, and millions of fliers suffer delays and humiliation at checkpoints – yet its skies remain less than fully safe. Some experts believe here’s a better way… By Barbara S Peterson
The police blotter at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey reads like a pulp-fiction plot: on a steamy Sunday morning in August, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) personnel pull a female passenger off a checkpoint line and swab her hands with a plastic wand that’s part of a bomb-detection device.
When the machine alarms, confusion descends on the screening checkpoint, and the woman vanishes. A massive search party scours bustling Terminal C, which goes into lockdown for three hours. More than 150 flights are cancelled or delayed; travellers are removed from planes and sent back through security. A screener remembers the woman’s boarding pass – she is flying to Cleveland. But that lead goes nowhere. The passenger is never seen again.
And that’s where the story fizzles out like an unfinished novel. Despite the manpower and money expended that morning, all anyone knows is this: an unidentified woman set off a machine designed to detect minute traces of dangerous substances such as pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a component of plastic explosives. Was it a false positive? Or was the incident something more sinister – a test run, perhaps, for a future suicide bomber?
The August meltdown was not an isolated case. Hundreds of security blunders occur annually at airports across the United States. According to a report released in May by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees the TSA, Newark had six breaches in just two months. These included passengers walking through a disability gate without being screened and a dead dog in checked cargo that was not examined for explosives.
A few weeks before Newark’s August incident, a screening machine at New York’s John F Kennedy International Airport remained unplugged for several hours. When security personnel finally noticed the oversight, they had to pull two aircraft of the runway and re-screen the passengers. It’s difficult even to know the extent of the problem. The DHS’s inspector general found that officials submitted reports on fewer than half of the security breaches at six major US airports.
Prior to 9/11, airlines were responsible for security in civil aviation and relied on private contractors who often used lowly paid, minimally trained employees to screen passengers and carry-on luggage. The TSA took control of all airport checkpoints in late 2002. A recent Gallup Poll showed that although slightly more than half of Americans approve of the agency’s handling of security screening, it was hardly a resounding vote of confidence: 42 per cent of those polled rated the TSA as doing just a fair or poor job. Republicans consider the TSA to be such a mess that they have made re-privatising airport security a plank in the party platform.
While it’s true that no American planes have been hijacked or blown up since 9/11, several recent attempts to bring down jetliners over the US have come unnervingly close to succeeding. Even some of those who helped shape TSA policies agree the agency needs an overhaul. Kip Hawley, a former software company executive who was in charge of the TSA from 2005 to 2009, says the agency is “too reactive and dependent on rules to parry the very real threat stalking us”.
One size does not fit all
Ruth Sherman, 88, of Sunrise, Florida, is not what most people think of when they imagine a security risk. Yet on 28 November 2011, TSA agents at New York’s JFK airport took the wheelchair-bound Sherman to a private screening room to examine a bulge in her colostomy bag.The following day at the same terminal, Lenore Zimmerman, 85, of Long Beach, New York, who weighs less than 50 kg and also uses a wheelchair, was subjected to what she calls a strip search, including the removal of her back brace.
The TSA apologised for improperly examining the elderly women’s medical devices but disputed that Zimmerman was strip-searched. Just two weeks before these incidents, a congressional committee had noted, “(The) TSA has failed to develop an effective, comprehensive plan to evolve from a one-size-fits-all operation, treating all passengers as if they pose the same risk…”
The fix: Frisking innocent people is eroding public support for airport security. We could restore common sense to checkpoints by instituting a risk-based system. “If the TSA had the courage to do data-based screening,” Robert Poole, a transportation analyst at the Reason Foundation, says, “you could reduce the body scans, pat-downs and shoe removals.”
Two TSA pre-screening programmes currently expedite passage through airport checkpoints, but neither is a true trusted-traveller set-up, which would include biometric IDs, background checks and other data to identify low-risk fliers. Secure Flight compares passenger manifests with watch lists, while PreCheck, which operates at selected checkpoints in 23 US airports, relies on airline-provided frequent-flier rolls for its members, who retain shoes, belts and jackets while moving through checkpoints.
A better idea: The TSA should come up with a true vetting system modelled on the Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry programme, which allows US citizens and permanent residents who clear background checks and pay an R800 fee, good for five years, to bypass immigration and customs lines. Members must also have an in-person interview and get fingerprinted. The TSA programme would be voluntary, which would placate some privacy watchdogs. And, unlike PreCheck, which has been criticised for inconsistency, this system would be a more predictable way to move proved, low-risk travellers through security.
Danger in the hold
In the early hours of 29 October 2010, a police forensics team boarded a Philadelphia-bound UPS cargo plane at East Midlands Airport in England. The police were acting on a tip from Saudi Arabia, where intelligence sources alerted them to a bomb on board. The technicians delicately opened the flagged parcel, which was addressed to a Chicago synagogue, and discovered it contained a printer. Police and military explosives experts examined the machine for hours before concluding there was nothing dangerous about it.
But later that day, authorities in Dubai discovered a bomb in a similar printer on a FedEx plane. The East Midlands officials then took another look and discovered that the printer’s cartridge contained enough PETN to bring down the plane. By removing the cartridge from the printer during the examination, investigators had inadvertently defused the device – just 3 hours before it was set to explode. If the plane had followed its original schedule, the alarm clock in a mobile phone attached to the cartridge would have triggered the bomb, probably over the eastern seaboard of the US.
This kind of plot also threatens passenger planes, which carry about 40 per cent of all air cargo in their lower holds. Members of a Yemen-based al-Qaeda affiliate sent the two printer bombs. The one found in Dubai had travelled on two passenger planes without detection before being loaded on to the FedEx jet.
“It is well-known in security circles that the biggest threat to aviation right now is a flight into the United States, originating from a point overseas, using a hidden bomb,” says Steve Elson, a former Navy SEAL who was a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s covert “red team” that tested airport checkpoints.
The fix: The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of 2001, which created the TSA, stipulated that by the end of 2002, all checked bags had to be screened for explosives. The TSA installed minivan-size CTX (computed tomography X-ray) machines in airport lobbies as a short-term measure, but airports were expected eventually to integrate CATscan-like explosive-detection systems into the regular baggage-handling apparatus.
Ideally, these inline systems screen and sort baggage in a single pass. It’s estimated this one change would save the TSA nearly R3,7 billion over five years in staffing costs, as well as greatly reduce screener injuries (and hence turnover) and would eliminate large concentrations of people clustered around lobby-based EDS machines, which are potential targets for suicide bombers.
A recent congressional investigation by the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, however, notes that fewer than half of America’s 35 largest airports have inline set-ups. Further, the report revealed that millions of dollars’ worth of inline machines are gathering dust in TSA warehouses. The TSA needs to deploy them.
In May, the TSA set a deadline of 3 December 2012 for passenger air carriers to conduct 100 per cent cargo screening on international flights bound for the US. The TSA must adopt an aggressive role to establish this system effectively or it could fail, as it did with inline screening.
And total screening should extend to air-cargo flights. The spectre of a massive freighter detonating over a major airport should be all the encouragement aviation haulers need to make flights safe. Insurance companies can offer discounts for increased security, and the TSA and the National Institute of Standards and Technology could vet technology for making this process timely and cost-effective.
It was a dramatic case of mass whistle-blowing: in August, a story broke that 32 TSA officers at Boston’s Logan International Airport had filed complaints that co-workers were resorting to racial profiling to meet managers’ quotas for checkpoint stops and searches. The officers are members of a behaviour-detection programme designed to spot mannerisms of potential terrorists.
Instead, they noticed that some fellow officers, under pressure to boost referrals to law-enforcement agencies, were targeting minorities on the assumption that those travellers would be the most likely to yield busts for criminal activities. The TSA has opened an investigation. “When the TSA has this kind of mission creep it raises questions of the implicit trade-off between civil liberties and security,” transportation analyst Poole says. “Have we given up too much? Airport security is being used for all sorts of purposes way beyond what was intended.”
The fix: The TSA needs to stop playing cop and focus on weeding out potential threats to air travel. A programme called Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), which trains TSA officers like those in Boston to look for tics that supposedly signal evil intent, will cost more than R8 billion over the next five years, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. Since SPOT was introduced in 2006, it has never undergone rigorous scientific review and has not led to a single arrest on terrorism charges.
Don’t deploy behaviour-profiling programmes in airports until peer-reviewed scientific testing confirms their effectiveness. Instead, adopt less conspicuous methods of screening. The agency is testing a stand-off scanner at train stations that uses passive millimetre-wave sensors to peer under clothing to find weapons and explosives. The system, unlike X-rays, employs naturally occurring radiation and can be mounted like a video camera. QinetiQ, the company that makes the device, says it can screen 380 people an hour from a distance of up to 20 metres.
And fast-track biometric-based security. The DHS and some airlines are developing a checkpoint of the future. In the latest blueprint, a passenger walks through a futuristic tunnel where sensors pick up his information stored in a biometric chip. The portal consolidates an arsenal of tech toys, from metal detectors to explosives sniffers, into one mega search engine.
The tech solution
The TSA’s acquisition of expensive and unproved terror-fighting technology blatantly exposes the agency’s reactive and spendthrift nature. After the 2001 shoe-bomb plot, the TSA solicited the market for a shoe scanner that could detect metal and chemical explosives. More than a decade and millions of dollars later, the TSA has rejected four underperforming devices and is testing a fifth. Meanwhile, travellers continue to pad shoeless through security, which US Travel Association surveys cite as the leading source of delays and frustration for air passengers.
The shoe-bomb plot, followed a couple of years later by two attacks on Russian planes by female suicide bombers with explosives in their bras, triggered another TSA tech spree: the agency spent R180 million on explosives trace-detection devices, the so-called puffer machines that were supposed to blow air on passengers to dislodge specks of explosive material. Great in the lab, maybe, but lousy in airports, where dust jammed the machines.
A mid-2006 plot to blow up at least seven trans-Atlantic flights out of London using liquid bombs led to another tech sweepstakes to find a bottled-liquids scanner. The TSA has purchased 1 000 of these devices for R320 million. However, since most travellers are still subject to the much-hated 50 ml limit on liquids, the scanners are used only for the small percentage of travellers who are transporting larger quantities that are permitted for medical reasons.
On Christmas Day 2009, the Nigerian-born, Yemeni-trained jihadist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab slipped past numerous layers of security in Amsterdam and boarded Northwest Flight 253 while wearing PETN-packed briefs designed to bring down the jet as it descended towards Detroit. East of the city, he ignited his pants, but passengers swiftly doused the flames.
Within days, the TSA announced the purchase of several thousand advanced imaging machines at about R1,2 million each and touted these full-body scanners as the best way to stop another bomber-in-briefs. Sources who have seen classified reports on the technology tell PM the scanners won’t necessarily detect concealed explosives.
Last year, the panel that investigated 9/11 issued a 10th-anniversary report card that cited the inability to find explosives hidden on travellers as one of the most glaring security shortcomings. The report stated that the new full-body scanners “are not effective at detecting explosives hidden within the body and raise privacy and health concerns”.
The fix: Halt procurement of equipment unless absolutely necessary and use independent scientific review panels to vet new technology. Overturn the restrictions on liquids, gels and aerosols; advanced technology X-ray (ATX) machines can effectively screen liquids in any amount packed in carry-ons, but hundreds of these devices are sitting in TSA warehouses. Put them into service. “You should be able to hang on to your Gatorade,” former TSA chief Hawley says. “I hope we’ll soon see the baggie disappear.”
Beyond the checkpoint
On a balmy evening in August, Daniel Casillo, a 31-year-old from Queens, New York, and some buddies decided to settle a bar argument about who had the fastest jet ski by racing their watercraft in Jamaica Bay. When Casillo’s Sea-Doo conked out, he swam nearly 5 km to shore, heading for the lights of a JFK airport runway that extends into the bay.
Wearing a yellow life jacket, he scaled a 2,4 m-high barbed-wire fence and walked over 3 km, crossing two runways before airport police apprehended him at a boarding gate inside Terminal 3. Casillo’s stroll failed to trigger the R800 million Raytheon-designed Perimeter Intrusion Detection System, a collection of motion sensors, surveillance cameras and alarms that is supposed to automatically alert officers in a nearby command centre to proceed to the scene of an intrusion. Despite the motion sensors’ on-response to Casillo, squirrels and high winds had set them off in early tests.
Another potential perimeter threat: nearly 1 million airport workers have badges that permit them access to secure areas, yet few of them pass through checkpoints to get there. Instead, TSA screeners roam the airport grounds and randomly check the status of workers ranging from catering-truck drivers to mechanics.
The fix: By focusing on interior checkpoint security, the TSA has ignored gaping holes in exterior airport barriers. Responsibility for security outside immediate checkpoints is split among federal, state and local authorities, with the airport operator’s role even less clear. It’s time for the TSA to exercise vigorous, proactive oversight over entire airports. Congress ordered the agency to audit all US airports, starting with the largest. The TSA needs to flag security gaps, make recommendations and suggest fines for non-compliance.
Follow the lead of Tokyo’s Narita International Airport and other overseas hubs by combining surveillance technology with boots-on-the-ground police work. As New York airport police union spokesman Bobby Egbert tells PM, the fancy James Bond gadgetry is often used as an excuse to cut back on patrols – with predictable results. The TSA also needs to screen airport workers who have security clearances far more frequently.
Address offshore threats
In the past few years, the most dangerous plots have exploited loopholes abroad. The shoe-bomb and liquid-bomb plots were hatched in the UK, the underwear bomber boarded a plane in the Netherlands, and the printer bombs came from Yemen.
The fix: Rely on intelligence-based security. Instead of wasting money on past threats such as box cutters and knives on planes with hardened cockpit doors, spend it on programmes that increase the exchange of information between the US and its allies. Lack of co-ordination meant that early intelligence on the underwear bomber was ignored. After that, the DHS pledged to disseminate reported threats throughout its departments and to work closely with other agencies.
Other recommendations: station sky marshals on all flights from hotspots such as the Middle East, and ratchet up pressure on other nations to install effective explosives-detection technology. “Most countries with flights to the US belong to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency,” former SEAL Elson says. “They have a set of standards, and countries can inspect each others’ airports to see if they conform. If an airport is really bad, we can sanction them.”