Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New TSA Procedures

Much has been said about the new TSA procedures of body scans and hands-on searches being an invasion of privacy and a violation of the right to protection from unlawful searches. I have a different point of view. Disclosure: I have been working in the Pentagon for most of the last 10 years (do the math), except for excursions to some of the world's finest resorts and garden spots. I didn't get out of bed this morning to talk about airport security, but I feel that I have something worthwhile to add to this conversation—mostly because my perspective is so different from most others.

Anyone who thinks that we are not already using behavioral profiling is simply not aware of reality. There are some people who are being watched very closely because of their behavior (not race, age, or religion) and these people will never come close to an airport. Meanwhile, there are probably others whose behavior has escaped attention. What about them? I would support making public the fact that we are giving additional behavioral profiling training to TSA agents. Still, behavioral profiling is only a deterrent. It can be defeated by clever and determined terrorists.  

Anyone who thinks racial, age, or religious profiling is the answer has probably not thought the issue though very carefully. Terrorists who see that we never check old ladies, ever, will simply exploit that weakness. We are talking about people who put IEDs in dog carcasses because they new American soldiers or Marines would stop to move a dead dog off the road.

Any citizen who submits to mistreatment by the government is asking to be exploited. We need to keep our eyes open and our brains engaged to understand what is going on, and why. We need to hold our elected representatives accountable. That said, whether one thinks he’s being mistreated is a function of his understanding of the situation and the options available. We may hate the new TSA procedures, but let us hate more the circumstances that make them necessary. Are they, in fact, necessary? What would be the public reaction to a second underwear bomber? I believe people would be furious that we had not found a way to screen for and prevent this type of attack. Granted, terrorists will simply look for another weakness, and we will react. Again, what are the real options? Do nothing? Out-spending the enemy is what won us the Cold War.

The relevant poll question is not whether one feels safer now compared to 10 years ago, before 9/11. How could anyone know? How could one measure the level of safety and security one feels (or inversely, the level of threat and fear) consistently over time? How could anyone measure—right now—the safety they felt back then, given all that has happened since? The world is changing. Our frame of reference is changing. As it is unanswerable, this question is moot.

No, the relevant poll question is: Has a terrorist ever tried to kill you, personally? A person’s judgment about new TSA procedures is a function of how they perceive the terrorist threat.

The second most important question is, what would you have our government do about terrorists who want to kill us?  If the answer to the first question is "No," then you are likely to think the government is, and since 9/11 has been, over-reacting.

Here's the typical logic: Death on a plane = Death on a plane, i.e., the cause (mid-air collision, lack of maintenance, shoe-bomber) is irrelevant. Since the incidence of any Death on a plane is low, then Death on a plane is not an important problem compared to the economy or health care. Therefore, any attempt to reduce the incidence of Death on a plane should be treated proportionally to all other problems. Out of each dollar, maybe we spend 40 cents each on the economy and health care, 10 cents on the debt, 7 cents on other services, and a penny each on air traffic control, better maintenance, and counter-terrorism. Anything more than a penny on counter-terrorism is going to seem disproportionate to most people.

My point: "most people," thanks to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, still have not been personally attacked by a terrorist.

If "most people" want to complain about heavy-handed, over-reacting, freedom-stomping government, that's fine. In fact, that’s a good thing, since it shows that “most people” have never been on the same plane with the shoe bomber, or walked past an SUV-bomb parked on Times Square, or attended a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland, next to a would-be van-bomb.

Meanwhile, having a security conversation with people who have never been bracketed by mortars is likely to be an exercise in frustration for those on both sides.

Getting frustrated with people who don’t get it--that’s not why I got out of bed today.

I have had more than a few near death experiences. There are many ways to die, and they are not all the same!