House Republicans just unveiled their lean budget for the Department of Homeland Security. Asking DHS to make do with less is reasonable, but precluding DHS from buying more passenger scanning machines – as the new budget makes a point of doing – is foolish.
Bin Laden’s death, as important as it is, will not stop al-Qaeda’s continuing efforts to blow up planes. They tried to do it with Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, back in December 2001. They tried to do it with the liquid explosives plot to bring down 10 airliners in the summer of 2006. And they tried to do it with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, on Christmas Day of 2009. These are just the plots that are publicly known. Other efforts have been foiled at an early stage and have not become publicly known.
All the criticism of TSA now – for being intrusive in trying to make sure that bombs don’t get on airplanes – will be nothing like the criticism if the terrorists succeed in bringing down a plane.
Metal detectors, which have widespread public acceptance, are important security devices for screening passengers. But they are simply not sufficient to detect some types of explosives. Research and testing to develop better passenger screening tools has been underway in earnest since 9/11, and TSA began deploying passenger scanning machines in 2007. But it took the near-disaster of the Christmas Day underwear bomber to accelerate deployment.
TSA could have chosen other responses, but those other responses are not appealing. TSA could have, for example, done nothing at all to change passenger screening. The underwear bombing incident did not end in disaster, thanks to the fault of the would-be bomber and fast action by heroic passengers. TSA could have bet on continued incompetence by terrorists. But that is not the type of bet that TSA should make.
At the other end of the range of possible responses, TSA could have insisted that every person be subject to scanning before boarding a plane. Or TSA could have insisted that every passenger be subject to a very intrusive physical search. But these types of mandates would push the traveling public into an even greater uproar.
TSA has chosen a reasonable course – broad deployment of passenger scanning machines with randomized and flexible use. Not every passenger is selected for scanning – generally TSA uses randomization procedures to create a sufficient likelihood of detection. And for those passengers who are selected, there is flexibility: the passenger can choose a thorough pat-down instead of the scan. Further, there are significant privacy protections: the TSA officers who see the passengers never see the scan (instead, the results of each scan are relayed to the screener by a TSA officer who is located remotely); the scanning technology blurs or removes facial features of the passengers, so that even the remotely located officers cannot identify the passengers by face; and TSA policies prevent storing or transmitting the images of passengers.
Preventing DHS’ acquisition of passenger scanning machines might be popular and might resonate with the budget cutting fervor that exists today. But given the history of attempts to blow up airplanes, this budgetary move is a dumb one.