Two views of what’s wrong with U.S. airport security
By Daniel Rubin
Did a little flying over vacation with the bionic woman, and I’m happy to report that our TSA experience at the airport in Philadelphia was an uneventful drive-through.
My wife’s titanium hip set off alarms. They wanded and patted her down. She had no complaints.
It wasn’t Mimi’s favorite screening. That happened in London, at Heathrow, where a soft-spoken, polite woman asked my wife if she could search her, then explained everything she was about to do. Only afterward did Mimi realize that during their easy banter, the screener had been sizing her up like a seasoned sleuth.
I was more partial to the experience in Marseille, France, a sweaty, chaotic crossroads where line-jumping seemed to be the local sport.
No one made me take off my shoes.
Soon after December 2001, when an al-Qaeda operative named Richard Reid tried to light plastic explosives stuffed into the heel of his boot, our nation’s response has been to invite everyone to shuffle through metal detectors in socks or bare feet.
To some, the sight of Americans fumbling for their footwear after passing through security is a sign the terrorists have won or, at the very least, an admission that we’re stuck fighting the last war while our enemy plans new tactics.
That’s the view of Fred Gevalt, one of a pair of critics of our approach to air security who hit the talk-show circuit while I was away.
Gevalt, a pilot and former publisher of a civil aviation periodical, spent two years producing a documentary film that sees the Transportation Security Administration as a classic example of big government at its worst. The film, released on DVD last week, is called Please Remove Your Shoes.
“I’ve just watched them get bigger and bigger, and their empire-building is out of control,” Gevalt said of the TSA. “At the end of the day, what do we have? Like a lot of government programs, something that’s extremely intrusive, expensive as hell, and doesn’t work.”
He views the screeners as window dressing, mall cops who engage in a form of theater that suggests security but doesn’t deliver.
Gevalt, a Penn dropout who fought in Vietnam and then earned a pair of degrees from Harvard, chose as his narrator a former Federal Aviation Administration special agent named Brian Sullivan.
Sullivan and a half-dozen past and present aviation-security specialists argue that the government ignored real threats before 9/11 and afterward punished those who made too much noise or criticized management.
TSA officials say the movie criticizes policies that the young agency has long since improved. “We have full confidence in our highly trained workforce to use the latest intelligence, state-of-the-art technology, and other layers of security to keep the traveling public safe,” said spokeswoman Ann Davis.
Another critic of the way we secure our skies is a former insider – Stewart Baker, who served as policy chief for the Department of Homeland Security. His new book is Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism.
It’s not bureaucracy, he argues, but the privacy lobbies – on both the left and the right – that have thwarted better intelligence-gathering and security.
Most of the problems I’ve been writing about in Philadelphia – invasive or insensitive screenings of the very young, the elderly, and the disabled – might have been reduced had privacy advocates not slowed deployment of full-body scanners and stopped the gathering of information about who has made reservations to fly, Baker said.
The TSA is only allowed to know about 5 percent of the people the government keeps terrorism-related intelligence about, he told me. As a result, screeners wind up treating someone like Ryan Thomas, a 4-year-old wearing orthopedic braces, as if his parents might be radicalized Muslim converts who supported suicide bombers on the Internet.
“That,” Baker said, “would make anyone a little rigid.”
I’m willing to give up some privacy here – as long as the information is used wisely. What are the odds of that?