hide captionTravelers go through airport security at the San Francisco International Airport, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009.
Russel A. Daniels/AP
Travelers go through airport security at the San Francisco International Airport, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009.
Russel A. Daniels/AP
The failed Christmas Day attack on a U.S. airliner has triggered a new wave of scrutiny of the U.S. government's approach to aviation security.
Much of the criticism has focused on technological and intelligence gaps exposed by the ability of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to allegedly smuggle explosives sewn into his underwear onto a Northwest flight from Amsterdam bound for Detroit.
But there are also questions about whether the U.S. government is being aggressive enough in implementing other kinds of measures to detect suspicious passengers.
Dutch authorities say that Abdulmutallab passed through regular security screenings and raised no red flags. But in the airplane's toilet, he was allegedly able to assemble an explosive device that included 80 grams of an explosive called Pentrite, or PETN, which he planned to detonate with a syringe.
Training Officers To Look For Suspicious Behavior
Recently, in the U.S., the Transportation Security Administration has tried to augment its screening procedures by ramping up an effort to train more of its personnel to detect suspicious behavior by passengers.
"Over the past couple of years, TSA has developed a behavior detection capability that is really not profiling — in fact, it's rooted in some of the surveillance of U.S. retail operations," says Tom Blank, a former senior TSA official.
He points out that top retailers have developed sophisticated procedures to identify potential shoplifters based on their actions and their mannerisms.
The TSA drew upon that research to train a corps of what it calls behavioral detection officers to look for signs of anxiety, such as increased sweating or heavy breathing.
"It doesn't have anything to do with religious belief, gender or ethnicity," says Blank, who is now vice chairman of Wexler & Wexler, a Washington lobbying firm.
It remains unclear just how effective these measures are, amid doubts about the qualifications of the screeners and the depth of the training program. But officials point out that this is just one element of TSA's multilayered security efforts.
Strengths And Pitfalls Of The Israeli Model
The TSA's behavioral detection measures also fall well short of what a country like Israel has pioneered. As a longtime terrorist target, Israel is renowned for its aggressive airline security.
Passengers there are interrogated thoroughly about everything from their travel history to their family ties, and some are exhaustively searched based on the suspicions of security personnel.
"Israeli security in the blink of an eye would have pulled out a 23-year-old male traveling alone who had recently been in Yemen," says Mary Schiavo, a former U.S. Transportation Department inspector general who has represented families of Sept. 11 victims in her legal work. "His luggage would have been completely searched. He would have been completely searched."
But Israel has a mere handful of airports, while TSA screeners are deployed at some 450 commercial U.S. airports, where they screen about 2 million passengers a day.
The Israeli procedures also run up against U.S. anti-discrimination laws.
"One of the major differences between us and Israel is that part of their profiling does include nationality, national origin, race, religion, age and physical appearance," says Schiavo. "We do not include those things, because we are the United States of America and we have different standards."
Some experts suggest there could be a middle ground.
"We could say we're going to look at men between these certain ages and these different areas of the world, because that's been the profile of those who have tried to attack us from a terrorism standpoint over the past eight years," says Matt Mayer, a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
But profiling also has its pitfalls. Blank, the former TSA official, points to several cases in recent years when airline pilots have refused to fly certain groups of Muslim men they deemed suspicious, only to learn later that they never posed any threat.
"There's the balance where you have to be careful," Blank says. "In this day and age, in the post-9/11 atmosphere, to be error-free is a pretty high bar with regard to behavior assessment."
Which Leads Us Back To Technological Solutions ...
Schiavo looks instead to new technology as the answer, pointing to sophisticated screening equipment that she says could have detected the explosives smuggled aboard by Abdulmutallab.
But few of the new devices are in place yet. There have been glitches with some of the machines, particularly the walk-through explosives trace-detection portals, or "puffer" machines, where puffs of air are blown at passengers passing through semi-enclosed portals to dislodge particles on their bodies and clothes. The particles are then analyzed on the spot for traces of explosives. The machines, however, have been hampered by reliability issues.
Perhaps the most promising technology is the whole-body imaging system, which can reveal nonmetallic items and explosives concealed on a person's body.
The deployment of these machines has been slowed in part by their high cost, but privacy groups have also been strongly opposed. They worry that the images, which show cartoonlike outlines of a person's entire body, including their genitalia, could be misused.
In Europe, privacy concerns have also slowed down the use of the new imaging equipment. But after the latest failed attack, the Netherlands announced on Wednesday that it will begin using full body scanners within the next three weeks for flights heading to the U.S.
The attempted attack also exposed an apparent series of gaps inside the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement community.
Abdulmutallab was added to a massive database of potential terrorists after his father warned U.S. diplomats about his son's extremism. But the information was vague enough that it was never added to other terrorism watch lists, such as the no-fly list, and Abdulmutallab's U.S. visa was never revoked.
President Obama interrupted his Hawaii vacation to say on Tuesday that the failure to piece together the different bits of threat information about Abdulmutallab was "totally unacceptable," calling it a "systemic failure."
"Had this critical information been shared, it could have been compiled with other intelligence, and a fuller, clearer picture of the suspect would have emerged," Obama said. "The warning signs would have triggered red flags, and the suspect would have never been allowed to board that plane for America."