Earlier this month, my colleague, Charlie Leocha wrote about Jonathan Corbett, who determined how to go through TSA’s (Transportation Security Administration) full body scanners with a palm sized metal case concealed in his shirt. To make sure his effort wasn’t a fluke he went through TSA security with the case at two airports.
I’ve been an outspoken critic of TSA’s full body scanners, based on health, safety, and efficacy grounds. Despite scientists calling for an independent study of the health effects of TSA full body scanners, TSA Administrator John Pistole said, “My strong belief is those types of machines are still completely safe,” and continues to avoid the independent study he promised to conduct.
Even before Mr. Corbett showed he could get a metal object through TSA security, I explained how easy explosives could be secreted through one of TSA’s full body scanners.
I concluded long ago, that the scanners, even if safe, are a “colossal waste” of government funds and that TSA’s increased dependence on them actually makes us less safe, because they are too easily defeated by dedicated terrorists wishing to bring weapons and explosives on board commercial, scheduled airplanes.
In defense of full body scanners, TSA Blogger Bob Burns said, in part,
“With all that said, it is one layer of our 20 layers of security (Behavior Detection, Explosives Detection Canines, Federal Air Marshals, , etc.) and is not a machine that has all the tools we need in one handy device. We’ve never claimed it’s the end all be all.”
Considering Mr. Burns statement, it’s important to examine TSA’s “Layers of Security.”
Therefore, I’ll briefly describe and discuss each of the 20 layers.
1. Intelligence – This should be an important security asset for our travelers, yet, to date there have been serious failures of air travel intelligence, such as Richard Reid the “shoe bomber,” and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “panty bomber.” A major improvement in the quality of TSA intelligence could greatly increase air passenger safety.
2. Customs and Border Protection – If TSA is talking about intelligence, then CBP would help air passenger security, otherwise, most contact which CBP has with air travel is after passengers and cargo arrive from locations outside the United States.
3. Joint Terrorism Taskforce – The JTTF is a partnership between various US law enforcement agencies, charged with taking action against terrorism, most importantly by the sharing of intelligence between agencies. While this important, it’s not a separate layer, but part of the intelligence layer.
4. No-fly list and passenger pre-screening – On the surface the no fly list and passenger pre-screening should be worthwhile for air transportation security, but many have cited the no-fly list as prone to false positives and easily defeated. I seriously question the reliability of the list myself, considering two of its famous failures; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Faisal Shahzad.
5. Crew vetting – If done well, this would add to air passenger security.
6. VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams) – TSA describes VIPR as “Comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosives detection canine teams.” The assets of this layer are part of other layers, or have nothing to do with air transportation.
7. Canines – I have called for a dramatic increase in the use of canines to inspect air passengers and cargo for explosives for a long time, but have seen little evidence a meaningful increase has occurred in recent years.
8. Behavior Detection Officers – I have called for TSA to adopt the Israeli security model for air transportation security of which behavior assessment is a core element. Unfortunately, while it would appear this layer is increasing in use, it is apparently still not a core element of TSA security.
9. Travel Document Checker – The effectiveness of this layer is highly overrated and easily defeated. In fact, security guru, Bruce Schneier, has explained how, with a stolen credit card, a fake ID, and a real boarding pass this layer is easily defeated.
10. Checkpoint Transportation Security Officers – These are the TSA agents who man the airport security checkpoints. There is no doubt that TSA security checkpoints can provide increased air transportation security. The problem is, to date, their procedures and training are less than desirable, in my opinion.
11. Checked luggage – TSA’s inspection of checked luggage is important and does make air travelers safer.
12. Transportation Security Inspectors (Field Inspections) – These inspectors assess TSA personnel, their jobs, and TSA procedures and rules while in “the field.” This is an essential part of any good security plan if done well.
13. Random Employee Screening – It’s impossible to argue with the need for this layer of security.
14. Bomb Appraisal Officers (Guidance, Education, etc.) – These personnel enhance air transportation security.
15. Federal Air Marshall program – While I continue to question the quality of the Federal Air Marshall program, the program could be effective in improving air transportation security, if its rules, regulations and training were substantially improved.
16. Federal Flight Deck Officers (Pilots get guns) – It’s my belief that pilots, flight engineers and navigators should never leave the cockpit in the case of an attack on their plane, so as to maintain their control of it. They should never take on the role of “buckaroos,” by attempting to shoot terrorists, which could result in loosing control of the cockpit. It’s my belief that this security layer is ill-conceived and should be abandoned.
17. Trained Flight Crew (Self Defense Program) – Self defense training of flight crew members who work in airplane cabins improves air transportation security.
18. Law Enforcement Officers (Law Officers’ training for being armed) – Requiring training for any law enforcement officer who flies on a plane while armed is a good idea, but I question the program which requires little more than 1.5 to 2 hours of training.
19. Hardened Cockpit Door – This is by far the most important air transportation security improvement TSA has made to date.
20. Passengers – TSA can’t take credit for this, and I don’t understand how TSA can call it one of their security layers, but there is no doubt that since, and including 9/11, the actions of passengers in the air has enhanced air transportation security more than any single action by TSA, other than its requirement of hardened cockpit doors.