Ronald Reagan once said that there are plenty of simple solutions, they are just not easy. While I never voted for him, I do think he was on to something. There are often problems that really vex us. In such situations, we tend to overthink, ignoring solutions that are right in front of us. Another way to put it is this: how do we best use and apply common sense?
Here are two challenges – one that is being addressed with such an idea, and one that might be. In the first case, I believe we are wasting time and money. In the second, who knows?
After the 9/11 attacks, there was a great hunger for solutions. Possibly because we had video of the attackers going through security before they boarded their plane and certainly because it is known Israeli security uses such techniques. There was much interest in behavior detection techniques. A lot of very smart people said it would be a good way to determine who had bad intent before they carried out an attack. If true, that would be a good way to keep attacks from happening.
TSA has spent a lot of money and personnel time on training and deploying Behavior Detection Officers (BDO). These are the uniformed TSOs hanging around at airports trying to see if someone is acting nervous or seems out of place. Needless to say, these folks do a lot of people watching and little else. I believe that, what seemed a good idea at the time, is really a waste of money and time.
For whatever reason, these TSOs are not using their training in actual interactions with passengers, but they are leaning against walls and walking around. I would actually have no problem giving all TSO’s some training in these techniques and then having them do their regular jobs. They wouldn’t be trained to be BDOs but would be trained to be better focused when interacting with passengers (perhaps they already are getting this training, in which case the BDO program is even more wasteful). They would still perform regular tasks expected of TSOs, like screening passengers and bags (which is really the core mission, after all).
And while they are at it, many seem to think it is a good idea to be training them to look for people sweaty and nervous. That might describe some guy off to meet his future father-in-law for the first time or someone with some drugs, but it does not normally describe a terrorist. Look at the video of the Tsarnaev brothers at the marathon, or of the London Underground bombers casing the stations. They are not sweaty or nervous; they are focused and unafraid. They don’t think they are doing something wrong (as a drug dealer might). In their own twisted minds, they know they are doing something right and important. Maybe that’s why TSA catches the occasional passenger with drugs but never any terrorists or potential terrorists.
In that case, I believe we have a simple obvious idea that has not worked and should be dropped or seriously modified.
Another vexing issue is the worry about an insider threat. As President of the airport trade association, this is what kept me up at night. There were a lot of simple and bad ideas for addressing this, such as paralyzing airports by doing 100% employee screening. (I once asked a Hill staffer pushing for this whether they really wanted to keep the guy who drives the fuel truck from bringing more than 3 ounces of liquid to drink with his lunch. She said a definitive “yes” before realizing the absurdity and walking away). But someone recently suggested one that got me thinking. One way an insider can cause trouble is by inserting an explosive or some other device into a bag that has been checked and already screened. Indeed, in some parts of the world, this is a common way to smuggle drugs and can be just as effective for even more nefarious purposes.
Have you ever seen those bags wrapped in what seems to be endless amounts of plastic tape? Around the world, the wrapping of bags is a popular way of protecting luggage, but it has not really caught on in the United States. What if checked bags were all wrapped at check in? TSA could still get into the bag if the screening process raised any questions; they can do this now with people who choose to have their bags wrapped (TSA and at least one company that wraps bags have arranged a protocol for this). If TSA gets into the bag, it would be re-wrapped. I am told that one country in South America used this technique to effectively shut down the drug trade, at least that portion using aviation. Perhaps there is the seed of an idea here.
I understand, there are a lot of practical problems that come with this idea, but there are practical problems with any idea. I still think the second most likely source of an aviation terrorist catastrophe would come from an insider threat (I can’t discuss the one that really keeps me awake). I especially worry about this as we move toward more off-airport check-in, especially in major tourist destinations. And if there is an incident caused by an insider who gets something into a bag or onto a plane, there will be a bad reaction and the likely implementation of a lot of bad ideas.
There may be some variation of this idea that could work. It may seem overly simple, but I bet there is someone out there smarter than me who can take this idea and do something with it.