Commentary Magazine


TSA Scanners vs. Profiling Redux

As they say in Congress, I would like to expand and clarify my previous remarks on TSA security screening. Abby Wisse Schachter at the New York Post has a thoughtful response taking issue with my endorsement of body scanners and pat-downs. She concedes that racial/ethnic profiling doesn’t work, but goes on to argue:

I differ with Boot when he dismisses behavioral profiling because it isn’t a perfect cure-all. Wouldn’t it be possible to profile everyone in line at security by conducting an interview to suss out an individual [who] seems like they might be a security threat based on their behavior, then have a second layer of pat-downs and nudie screening for those who didn’t pass the interview? Why is it necessary to essentially terrorize children in order to provide security which if we’re being realistic is not going to work 100 percent of the time. I’m not convinced the TSA has exhausted the benefits of other less invasive security techniques that they can plausibly claim this is the only way to go.

I was not dismissing behavioral profiling. I think it is vital and necessary but insufficient. To truly secure anything, you need multiple defenses. Thus military bases have an outer and an inner perimeter so that if the first is breached, the second will stand. In the same way, we need various defenses to stop terrorists from hitting our aviation system. Behavioral profiling is certainly part of it. So is interviewing at least some passengers. But there are limits to how far we can go with interviews. This is something that Israeli airport security personnel do extensively (I always seem to get asked if I’m Jewish and to name my rabbi), but they have the luxury of guarding only one airport. In the U.S., we have hundreds and hundreds of airports with thousands of flights every day. Imagine subjecting every single passenger to the kind of (sometimes lengthy) interrogation that Israeli security personnel do. It would slow the entire system to a crawl and generate more complaints than the body scanners. It would also be much more difficult to do because you would have to train tens of thousands of personnel in very difficult interrogation techniques. Far easier to train them to monitor a body scanner or to pat you down.

Even when done by well-trained Israeli operatives, the interviews are sometimes insufficient. That is made clear by this account (from the website of Israel’s security agency, Shabak) of a 1988 attempted bombing of an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv:

The passenger, a 32 year old Irish woman named Anne-Marie Murphy, who was six months pregnant, arrived at the check-in desk some forty minutes before it closed. She was approached and questioned by the deputy security officer as part of routine passenger security checks.

No suspicious signs were revealed during her questioning. The passenger, who gave the impression of being a simple woman, responded in the negative when asked if she had been given anything to bring to Israel. During the questioning she was calm, and revealed no sign of nervousness. In the check of her baggage, suspicious signs came to light: a Commodore scientific calculator with an electric cable was found; the bag raised suspicion due to its unexpectedly heavy weight. The security officer’s examination of the bag revealed explosives concealed in the bottom of the bag, under a double panel. He called the police, and the passenger was arrested.

Turns out Ms. Murphy — who did not fit the profile of a terrorist or act like one — had been given a bomb by her Jordanian boyfriend. In this case, only physical examination of her luggage revealed the device. But that wouldn’t work with some of the more recent al-Qaeda bombers, who are secreting explosives in their underwear or elsewhere on their person. The only way they can be reliably detected is with the body scanners and pat-downs that the TSA is now rolling out.

By all means, we should do various kinds of profiling and interviewing, but we also need another line of defense. This is it.