Problems With Air Travel Security, and 5 Ways to Make Us Safer

Stop fighting the last terrorist battle, try to prevent the next one.


Kelly Moore was on the staff of the 9/11 Commission and the former deputy program manager of the Terrorist Interdiction Program at the Department of State. She is a co-author of 9/11 and Terrorist Travel .

Yesterday a friend asked me if I had any Thanksgiving Day travel plans. Obviously he's never had to transit New Jersey.

Don't get me wrong, I love my family. But unless Scotty is going to beam me to Connecticut there is no chance I'll be seeing my parents anytime soon.

New Jersey is a foul-smelling parking lot, I would need a bank loan to afford an Amtrak ticket and now flying involves either soft porn or sexual assault, depending on your preferred method of personal violation.

Ahh, the joys of holiday travel.

We're told that the latest airport security protocol--submitting to body scanners that emit a small dose of radiation in order to see if we've stuffed a bomb in our underpants--is a necessary intrusion to prevent a terrorist attack.

We're also told that the radiation is harmless and that the screener viewing our naked body images does not know our identity and is sitting at some undisclosed location in the airport (presumably where they can't see us in the flesh).

Not that it matters because the scanners don't really leave much to the imagination.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the TSA rely on full body scans?]

What we haven't been told is that the former Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, who's been peddling these body scanners in interviews, works for some of the companies manufacturing them.

Or that a scientist working on the project proposed a modification to the technology four years ago so that body images would be distorted, akin to viewing yourself in a funhouse mirror, without affecting the visibility of dangerous objects.

The Department of Homeland Security turned him down. Yes, I know. Huh?

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on air security.]

But I'm not surprised. I was on the 9/11 Commission's terrorist travel and border security team. We had 19 pages of recommendations--not all of them made it into the final Commission report--which were offered to DHS by myself and several colleagues six years ago. They turned us down too.

No wonder people are frustrated with government.

The cold, hard reality is that there is no surefire way to prevent every terrorist attack when the people doing the killing are willing to commit suicide. But this isn't what people want to hear so we continue to be misled into believing that each successive intrusion and inconvenience is warranted because it will "keep us safe."

Where does this end? Flying naked and mailing our luggage to our destination ahead of time?

[Read Susan Milligan: TSA Scanner Debate Shows Americans Are Selective About Privacy.]

Except even that wouldn't protect us from some lunatic determined to blow up a plane. There are all manner of ways to accomplish that without being an actual passenger, from getting a job at an airport or with an airline to smuggling a bomb into the cargo hold, as was recently attempted.

There's no question that the government should be doing all it can to keep passengers safe. But viewing my breasts or feeling me up is a step too far and gives the illusion of safety when in fact there are significant holes elsewhere in our air travel security architecture.

[See a slide show of 5 ways to improve air security.]

Mainly, we have a bad habit of fighting the last war. Of responding to the terrorists instead of probing our system for deficiencies and eliminating or mitigating them before they are exploited.

There is no more classic example of this than, tragically, 9/11.

What most people don't know is that the security system in place the morning of the attacks, the Computer Assisted Passenger Processing System, or CAPPS, identified 10 of the 19 hijackers as suspicious travelers during the check-in process. Yes, really.

Most were identified by computer algorithm, but a few were entered into the system by wary airline personnel.