In the lead up to the 9/11 tenth anniversary, we were treated with a multitude of retrospectives. Many included a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report card, pointing out things that DHS has gotten wrong, not implemented, or otherwise fouled up. Others—like this post— focus on the significant progress that has been made in critical areas, while acknowledging that more work needs to be done.
DHS is by no means perfect. However, its organizational promise – that concentrating large operational agencies under one roof would improve security – has been met at the border. Today’s screening simply could not have been done by the three or four departments that had border responsibilities before 2003.
The DHS border screening model – identifying bad guys around the world, finding out in advance who is traveling, and making sure that the bad guys cannot pretend to be someone else – also applies to aviation security. It has not been used much at airports, though. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) does have a no-fly list to exclude the riskiest travelers and a selectee list to flag some travelers for additional scrutiny. Apart from those limited exceptions, TSA subjects every traveler to the same security procedures: magnetometers, x-rays, whole-body imaging and pat-downs. To put it another way, TSA treats all travelers like potential terrorists. That’s in part because it knows almost nothing about them beyond name, gender and date of birth. That data is enough to check the no-fly and selectee lists but not enough to identify any other risk factors and is far less information than Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers have at the border.
But we’ve run out of ways to check all passengers for weapons, and everyone—including TSA—agrees that new approaches are needed. TSA’s forthcoming “trusted traveler” pilot program is a useful starting point and should be commended. Many travelers will gladly provide more information to TSA in exchange for faster, simpler screening at the airport. Where DHS may need an additional push, however, is with respect to the long-term alignment of aviation and border security approaches.
TSA and CBP should integrate their security screening – beyond the current ad hoc efforts – so that each component would know that a traveler is coming their way when the traveler makes a reservation, giving both time to plan for appropriate screening. TSA and CBP would have access to relevant data to differentiate travelers, sending some to quick primary screening and others to secondary screening that includes questioning, careful scrutiny of luggage, and a record of the encounter that makes future screening more effective.
Such an alignment would not be free of controversy or complication (for example, identification verification procedures at the airport would likely require further tightening), but the gains in efficiency and security would be great. It would also make travel to and within the United States smoother and more welcoming, with travelers getting “credit” at the border for checks performed and answers provided at the airport and vice versa.
Since its creation, DHS has successfully brought a new and more effective risk-based screening process to the border. Going forward, DHS needs to bring that structure and philosophy to bear on the problem of aviation security as well.