Saturday, November 20, 2010


I see via Steve Benen that Representative John Mica (R-Florida), who's likely to become head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, wants government workers out of airport security:

A Republican lawmaker, who is faulting big government spending, is suggesting that airports dump the Transportation Security Administration altogether, and opt instead to privatize security.

And some airports, fed up with poor service in a climate where travelers are outraged about the prospect of full-body scanners, are listening.

The consideration comes after Florida Republican Rep. John Mica -- a longtime critic of the TSA -- wrote letters to the country's 100 busiest airports earlier this month asking them to switch to private security.

I wasn't going to talk about this subject anymore, but it's practically the only subject anyone wants to discuss these days, so here goes.

As Steve notes, the private employees who are handling security at a few airports (a carve-out that was allowed when the TSA was created) still have to follow TSA guidelines. Would the patdowns and gropes that have offended so many people recently somehow be less offensive if the employees weren't on a government payroll? Aimai, in comments here, argues that people would find "private cops" doing this even more infuriating. I'm not so sure -- I think the next focus would be on scrapping or drastically altering the government guidelines themselves.

Mica is actually an advocate of Israeli-style behavioral profiling, and he complains that a behavior-profiling program known as SPOT that's used at some U.S. locations doesn't work very well, because, he says, the SPOT profilers don't follow procedures that work well for Israelis.

Is that the direction we're going to go with a Republican-dominated D.C.? If so, I have to ask whether U.S. flyers are ready for a security process that works like this:

... The first layer of actual security that greets travellers at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport is a roadside check. All drivers are stopped and asked two questions: How are you? Where are you coming from?

"Two benign questions. The questions aren't important. The way people act when they answer them is," {Israeli security expert Rafi] Sela said....

Once you've parked your car or gotten off your bus, you pass through the second and third security perimeters.

Armed guards outside the terminal are trained to observe passengers as they move toward the doors, again looking for odd behaviour. At Ben Gurion's half-dozen entrances, another layer of security are watching. At this point, some travellers will be randomly taken aside, and their person and their luggage run through a magnometer....

You are now in the terminal. As you approach your airline check-in desk, a trained interviewer takes your passport and ticket. They ask a series of questions: Who packed your luggage? Has it left your side?

"The whole time, they are looking into your eyes -- which is very embarrassing. But this is one of the ways they figure out if you are suspicious or not. It takes 20, 25 seconds," said Sela....

At the check-in desk, your luggage is scanned immediately in a purpose-built area....

Five security layers down: you now finally arrive at ... the body and hand-luggage check....

Really? We're going to go for that?

Well, maybe we might -- if the system is blatantly two-tiered, as the Israeli system is, at least according to one observer:

This approach is both effective, time-consuming, and "racist": the profilers have a conversation with each passenger; as I'm an Israeli Jew, I always get the abbreviated treatment -- focusing more on where my bags have been since I've packed them. As a foreigner, you get a much more in-depth grilling. As a Muslim? They want to know your shoe size, and then a whole 'nother screener comes over and asks you everything all over again, just to see that you keep your story straight....

But even this guy thinks such a system wouldn't work here:

In the US, racial profiling is... unpalatable, and if each passenger / family got even a perfunctory 1-minute Q&A session with a TSA security officer, the system would crash.

Racial profiling here is illegal, but I could imagine that it might not be illegal for much longer. Is that where Congressman Mica wants to take our security system? And what message does that send to that Arab/Muslim world? (The point being, does that make us more or less safe? Does it protect our airports while increasing anger, thus encouraging more violence aimed at other U.S. targets? And could we even ethnically profile with any success when terrorist organizations almost certainly want to find attackers who don't match our stereotypes?)

And would we construct such an elaborate system of checks at every airport, or even every major airport? Could it possibly work efficiently? Who's going to pay for it? Or are we just going to do a version of this that's as pale an imitation as (according to Mica) SPOT is?

I don't know the answers. I don't know how this is going to work out. But this may be where we're headed.

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