TSA – 20% Effective

A new report concerning undercover checks of security at U.S. airports reveals that the screening methods used by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) failed to uncover threats up to 80% of the time.

This is actually a step up from checks run two years ago which revealed a 95% failure rate. Even with this “improvement,” the end result is still concerning.

The House Committee on Homeland Security has called on David Pekoske, the Administrator of the TSA, to fix these problems, focusing on installing new scanning equipment in the country’s airports.

However, new equipment seems unlikely to fix the systemic issues with U.S. airport security. While Americans seem fixated on preventing the tools for attacks from getting through security (this fixation flows into other areas of life, such as gun control), other countries focus more on people as potential threats.

The gold standard for airport security is generally considered to be Israel. There they employ a “concentric security” methodology where checks begin as people enter airport property and continue until they’re on the plane. As a person enters into a closer “ring” of the airport, the checks become more extensive. These checks include scanning, but the focus is more on talking with people, interviewing them, and gauging their potential threat level. Thus, situations which seem common in the U.S. (e.g. a 90-year-old grandmother being hassled about having a bottle of water in her luggage) are less likely to occur in Israel due to their focus on the human threat.

The Israeli method is used, at least in part, in other parts of the world, such as Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. There, the interview method is used and can be quite extensive. Passengers are separated from one another and asked questions such as their origin and destination of travel, purpose of their travel, why they chose to go to their destination, as well as additional questions as the security agent works to gauge the threat level posed by the passenger.

These Israeli-type security methods also help to guard against attacks outside the “secure area” of the airport. Tempting targets for attackers are the security line itself and the departure and arrival areas as masses of people are confined in a relatively small space. A suicide bomber blew himself up in such an area in Moscow’s domestic Domodedovo Airport in 2011, and another did the same in Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in 2016.

Present U.S. security checks and the planned addition of more and better scanners do little to prevent or deter such attacks and, apparently, do little to actually detect the types of physical threats which they are meant to detect. What the TSA and Congress need is a paradigm shift in how airport security is handled in the U.S. and a focus on the human threat.

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