Monday, November 22, 2010

Are TSA screenings effective and constitutional?

Two Standing Around

Thanksgiving week is one of the busiest travel times of the year.  This year many travelers, me included, will be undergoing new searches by the Transportation Security Administration.  The new searches, which include highly detailed body scans and random pat-downs, have many fliers up in arms. There is a movement to opt out of the body scans in protest, and some are even claiming that the scans are a violation of the Constitution’s fourth amendment.  Still others are concerned about the health risk of radiation from the body scanners.

Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where my trip will originate, is one of the airports that has the new imaging technology, so if you plan on flying through ATL be prepared to submit to the body scan or a pat-down.  The TSA insists that there is little to fear from the machines and that a traveler would have to have 1000 scans before approaching the maximum allowable radiation dose (although some radiation experts dispute the TSA’s claim).  This is especially true since not all scanners use x-rays.  About half of airport scanners use millimeter-wave technology and have no known health risks.  If you are a frequent flyer or are still concerned, you can opt for a pat-down.

As far as privacy concerns go, the scanners do produce detailed images of the traveler’s body parts beneath their clothes.  According to the TSA, the images are viewed by an officer in a remote location who cannot see the traveler.  The officers in the security lane with the traveler cannot see the images.  The images cannot be “stored, transmitted, or printed.”

On the other hand, if you opt for (or are randomly selected for) a pat-down, you can expect a somewhat intrusive search.  According to many, the pat-downs are very thorough and include touching of genitals and breasts.  The pat-downs are conducted by officers of the same gender as the traveler.  The traveler also has the right to request that the pat-down be conducted in a private room.

The question of whether the scans and searches violate the fourth amendment seems to be a simple one to answer.  The attacks on September 11, 2001 are less than a decade in the past.  A few months later, Richard Reid tried to blow up an American Airlines flight with a bomb concealed in his shoes.  In 2006, terrorists tried to attack eight flights with explosives disguised as common liquids or gels.  Less than a year ago, on Christmas Day, 2009, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight enroute from Amsterdam to Detroit.  Mutallab had a bomb sewn into his underwear.  More recently, cargo flights enroute to the US were unsuccessfully attacked.  It is not hard to see that the threat is real and there are still lots of terrorists out there who are willing to trade their lives to kill as many Americans as possible. 

The fact is that these searches are not being conducted on random citizens on the streets.  They are being conducted on people who have chosen to fly on airliners.  Flying on an airliner is not a right.  When a traveler buys an airline ticket, they know they must be searched and are effectively consenting to that search.  If the traveler does not want to be searched, there are other travel options available that include driving, taking a bus or train, or using a private aircraft.  These searches almost certainly meet constitutional muster.

More questionable are reports that some travelers are being told that they cannot choose to leave the security line and exit the airport without being screened.  Unless there is some probable cause or suspicion beyond the fact that the traveler merely does not want to be screened, it seems that they are perfectly within their rights to leave the airport without submitting to any sort of screening.

The big question is whether the screening is effective.  It is clear that the TSA is a reactive agency.  They were created to combat box cutters.  They implemented shoe scanning after Richard Reid’s bomb attempt.  They limited liquids in 2006.  Now they are implementing body scans to meet last year’s threat.  The new TSA procedures will do nothing to prevent a terrorist from smuggling weapons or explosives in a body cavity.  There have already been reports that the terrorists are considering using explosive implants in breasts or buttocks.  How do we screen for that?

It is going to be necessary for the TSA to one day admit that profiling is a necessary tool.  Security efforts should be focused on travelers who present the biggest threat rather than democratically assuming that all passengers are equally dangerous.   Resources are wasted screening children, the elderly, flight crews (although I am aware of one incident in which a flight attendant was on a TSA watch list) and randomly selected passengers while more threatening passengers escape screening.

This is not to say that travelers should be racially or religiously profiled.  Even if this were constitutional, it would not work.  It is true that all recent terrorist attacks have been committed by Muslims, but it is impossible to tell someone’s religion by looking at them.  For example, Jews and Arab Muslims share a common heritage from the Middle East and can have similar appearances.  Similarly, there have been reports of Arab terrorists disguising themselves as Hispanics. 

Likewise, not all Muslims are Arab.  There are a growing number of western converts to Islam.  John Walker Lindh is a white American who was captured in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban in November 2001 after converting to Islam.  John Allen Muhammad, the DC Sniper, was a black US Army veteran who converted to Islam before launching his 2002 jihad.  Another white Muslim convert, Washington National Guardsman Ryan Anderson, was convicted of spying for al Qaeda in 2004.  Additionally, Muslims from countries such as Bosnia, Chechnya, and Azerbaijan are also Caucasians.

Another common thread of airline terror attacks since 9/11 is that they originated from other countries.  Unfortunately, due to the increasing number of terrorist attacks and plots by American Muslims, we cannot assume that domestic flights are safe.

Instead, security forces should use the Israeli model.  The Israelis take security seriously and have not had an airline hijacking since a failed attempt in 1970.  TSA should look for suspicious travelers and suspicious behavior.

It seems that many (although not all) of the most over-the-top claims about TSA harassment stem from the poor behavior of travelers.  People who lose their temper, don’t follow the rules, or carry metallic copies of the Bill of Rights can expect to get extra screening.  If you don’t want to undergo a body scan, you will get a pat-down.  Don’t bother arguing if you want to fly.

Travelers should keep in mind that the TSA really is on their side.  If they want to be angry at anyone about their screening experience, they should focus that anger on the terrorists who make it necessary.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think that most people are probably thinking too highly of themselves if they think TSA screeners will be drooling over their pictures.

On the other hand, if they let attractive opposite sex agents do the screening, I'll happily submit!