Securing Airports For The Holidays

It's a busy time for air travel and many may be anxious about security, thanks to new screening procedures. Others are anxious about the effectiveness of those methods. A recent Washington Post report revealed that $30 million of hi-tech screening machines have been abandoned by the Transportation Security Administration. National security expert Jack Riley of the RAND Corp. talks with Michel Martin about the TSA's investment in technology and the impact of screening procedures on holiday air travel.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we want to talk about a place many people will find themselves this week, at the airports. Even apart from the severe weather that has disrupted air travel in Europe and the northeast United States, it's a very busy time for air travel, and many people are anxious because of new screening procedures. Some worry that the new screening methods are just too intrusive. Others say that they aren't even very effective.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Jack Riley. He is a vice president of National Security Research Division at the RAND Corporation. That is a non-profit research and analysis group.

Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. JACK RILEY (Vice President, National Security Research Division, RAND Corporation): Thank you, Michel. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: Do you have sort of an overall analysis of whether these new screening procedures, the body scanners and the pat-downs that follow if those scanners aren't available, first of all, are they effective, and second of all, are they needed?

Mr. RILEY: In terms of whether or not the techniques are needed at this point, the answer is probably no. And I say that because it seems clear that we're headed toward using the scanners and the pat-downs as the primary, if not the only, security measure that will ultimately be implemented at the airports.

It's relatively time-consuming to get through the scanners and the pat-downs. It's not clear that the level of threat is that high, particularly with respect to flights that originate domestically, as opposed to overseas. There are some questions about the health effects of particularly the back scanners, as opposed to the millimeter wave scanners.

All of these factors combine, to me, to indicate that if there was a need to do this, we probably would have been better off using them as a secondary security or screening measure, rather than as a primary screening or security measure.

MARTIN: You know, the former head of the Transportation Security Administration, Kip Hawley, has said that the TSA has a tendency to be enticed by new technology before they've figured out how to integrate it with other layers of security. Do you think that that's true?

Mr. RILEY: I don't know if it's true, but they certainly have a volume problem. And by that I mean there are well over a hundred million enplanements domestically here in the United States, plus many millions of more overseas with people trying to come to the country, and that creates a volume issue for TSA.

They need to figure out ways to process large numbers of people quickly, and technology is one way that you can do that.

Where I think we've frankly fallen short a little bit is we haven't been very active in terms of setting up ways of triaging people and processing them differently depending on their flying profile or what we know about them.

So as a consequence, our security measures are really oriented towards processing large numbers of people all with the same technology. We don't do anything really effectively at this point to process people differently depending on what we know about them.

MARTIN: Do you think, though, that the taxpayers have a right to expect that they will work better than they have if they're going to invest that much money in them? I mean, I guess the question is, are we any safer today flying than we were before 9/11?

Mr. RILEY: Certainly people have the right to expect the technology will work, and that ultimately the machines and the processes that are used are effective. I think that's one of the reasons that there's some risk in deploying the current generation of scanners they way they've been deployed.

They're now on the brink of being used as the primary screening mechanism rather than as a backup mechanism that allows you to test their worthiness and their effectiveness. And I don't think we're going to know for a while whether or not that gamble is worth it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about airport security and the measures being taken by the Transportation Security Administration to prevent another terrorist attack via the air.

We're talking to security expert Jack Riley. He is vice president of the National Security Research Division at the RAND Corporation. That's a non-profit research and analysis group.

I think one of the things that's gotten a lot of people's attention, of course, and this is a holiday season where many people are traveling with young children, and there have been a couple of incidents that have gotten public attention where, you know, children are being patted down in a way that many people find very disturbing.

In today's Washington Post, for example, columnist Petula Dvorak writes: For this holiday season, parents get to choose between a scanner that will generate portraits of your kids looking like nude ghosts and, according to some reports, give off questionable levels of radiation, or they can take the little ones for a rubber-glove patdown that will upend years of stranger-danger training.

And so, again, I think it speaks to the question on the table here is that why are these measures being implemented when it just seems - well, I mean, it seems on its face ridiculous?

Mr. RILEY: There are certainly a lot of people that agree with you. I have been a participant for probably five or six years now in an online forum called Flyer Talk, where individuals gather to talk about travel, business, and other things. And I cannot think of another topic other than this that has engaged, and frankly in most cases, enraged the Flyer Talk community as much as this one.

MARTIN: What would be a better approach?

Mr. RILEY: People need to realize that the baseline level of security post-9/11 is fairly good for two very important reasons. First, cockpit doors have been reinforced, meaning it'll be almost impossible for a hijacker or a terrorist to get into the cockpit, commandeer the plane, and conduct the kind of attack we saw on 9/11.

The second is, passengers know that in a hijack situation they have to do something. We've seen this multiple times since 9/11 with Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, the underwear bomber last Christmas, where passengers intervened and helped bring the situation under control.

So the first answer to that question is we're actually doing a pretty good job as a result of the initial responses to 9/11. Beyond that, there are some changes that I think could occur that would improve security.

One is simply to reduce the size of the haystack that you're trying to search and trying to find the needle in. There are people who are frequent flyers. There are people who we know an awful lot about by virtue of their travel profile that can be moved into a different set of security with reduced inspection, but still some opportunity for a random component to search them properly.

People that are less frequent travelers or that we know nothing about, there's still a security system in place that is entirely effective.

MARTIN: I think the question that many people would have is, on the one hand there are these security procedures that many people find intrusive, offensive, time-consuming, and they say people of minimal risk shouldn't be subjected to them.

Mr. RILEY: Right.

MARTIN: On the other hand, there are those who raise the question of profiling in a country like this. I mean, the 9/11 hijackers had been in this country for some time on legitimate student visas for the most part, and they were traveling domestically. So there are those who would argue, how do you narrow the haystack without engaging in profiling? And so the question would be, is that possible in your view?

Mr. RILEY: One of the crucial distinctions between pre-9/11 and post-9/11 with respect to people getting into the country is it is much more difficult for them to do so now.

There is a much higher degree of scrutiny that people attempting to enter the United States undergo now, than they did before 9/11, and that provides a significant boost to the level of security, because it is part of the air transportation security process.

MARTIN: Jack Riley is vice president of the National Security Research Division at the RAND Corporation. That's a non-profit research and analysis group. We reached him at his home office in Pennsylvania.

Happy holidays to you, Mr. Riley. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. RILEY: Thank you.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.