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.

  • No amount of safety, no measure of security, NO NUMBER OF LIVES SAVED is worth sacrificing the founding principles of our nation.

    This is (ostensibly still) the land of the free, not the land of the safe. Freedom means risk and 235 years ago, some people decided that given the choice between living safe lives of submission to authority, or taking their lives in their hands and being free, they would rather have liberty at the expense of personal risk.

    Yes, if TSA stops doing what it is doing, planes may be blown up. Maybe we’ll have another 9/11. Maybe we’ll have 911 more 9/11s. It will be sad, people will be hurting and mourning. But that is the price we pay for liberty. When people say “freedom isn’t free,” that’s where that slogan comes from. When Thomas Jefferson said “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” it was not intended as some sort of anarchist screed. He was saying that sometimes, in order for there to be freedom for all, good people must stand against oppressors and, sometimes, sacrifice themselves in order to do so.

    And for godsakes, nobody is even asking any American patriot to fall on their sword. What we’re talking about is the people standing up and saying “Enough is enough” to the TSA. Saying “If we have to choose between being less safe in the air and enduring the wholesale sexual assault that you neander-thugs perpetrate against us every day at terminals across the nation, then we’ll keep our 4th-Amendment rights and take our chances. Now get the hell out of our airports.”

    Anyone who values safety over liberty is not espousing American principles and, in point of fact, this can be confirmed via the words of Benjamin Franklin himself. It’s been quoted a thousand times before but it rings absolutely true each and every last time. “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

    America. Land of the free. Not “Land of the free, except in airports or when we’re really really scared, void where prohibited, some restrictions may apply.”

  • Janice Kephart

    Mark, I agree that for foreign travelers integrating CBP and TSA would be of manifold help in providing good information to TSA prior to folks going through TSA checkpoints.  I think making clear you are discussing foreign travelers, not Americans, in the piece would assuage (maybe not) the comment below.

    However, what I’m going to suggest now probably will raise the ire of anyone who believes (comment below) that innocent people deserve to die because meandering through an airport not knowing who is seeking to blow up a passenger-loaded plane in flight and who is not simply violates our freedom.  I happen to see my freedom as being (close to) guaranteed no one is going to hurt me, so I can be free to act lawfully once I deboard.  But that is just me.  

    While I agree on trusted traveler, I think we need to go a bit further than you suggest, and deal with the American population as well– and those claiming to be American and presenting false IDs at the airport, which any well trained terrorist could still do today.  

    The problem is that the rest of the civilian population should be verified that they are who they say they are; body scans and X-rays don’t do that.  The only way to do that is to verify that the ID presented is issued by the issuing agency, or through biometrics.  (Biometrics are great, but expensive to deploy in a tight economy nationwide.)  While REAL ID (driver license minimum standards which all Americans need to have by 2014 or 2017, depending on date of birth) helps assure that identity is sound when an applicant is issued a driver license, it does not assure against a counterfeit that looks like a REAL ID.  Today, a counterfeit makes it through if it matches the name on the boarding pass.  But if checked against the issuing agency, it will come back as not issued, and thus fraudulent.  

    A simple scan– the same one used at all defense agencies, Air Force One, and mints now– is handheld and returns a simple red light/green light within seconds, less time than it takes to make sure a name on (any) ID (that can’t be checked for fraud), would provide much of the information you are seeking because you can populate that scanner with all CBP data and any other lists you want on there.  

    The 9/11 hijackers obtained at least 9 of 26 state-issued IDs by fraud.  They used those IDs successfully on the morning of 9/11.  All this time after 9/11 and we still haven’t secured the ID portion of TSA… why isn’t anyone screaming???  

    PS.  TSA’s announcement last fall to pilot a scan of “security features” is not really helpful; good counterfeits make it through that scan easily.