The US government is starting off 2010 the way it has so often in the past – with a knee-jerk reaction to something that occurred the previous year. This time around, it’s the response to the not-so-bright Nigerian would-be terrorist who ignited himself instead of explosives hidden in his underwear aboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.
The reaction thus far by the federales involves plans to purchase and install hundreds of supposedly high-tech full-body scanning machines at airports. Everyone from Capitol Hill to former and current secretaries of Homeland Security is calling for hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to be spent on not-yet proven “back-scatter” x-ray machines. Despite legitimate questions about the privacy-invasive nature of these all-revealing machines, the pressure for their purchase and installation is likely to be irresistible.
Yet serious questions remain unanswered regarding the capability of these back-scatter x-ray machines to even detect the type of low-density, liquid chemicals the Christmas Day would-be bomber employed. One defense-industry firm in the United Kingdom, for example, already has determined through studies and tests that these whole body x-ray machines the US government is bent on installing, are ineffective. Testing conducted by the company, QinetiQ, found “it was unlikely that the body scanners would have picked up the current explosive devices being used by al-Qaeda,” because while detecting shrapnel, heavy wax and metal, the scanners reportedly cannot detect plastic, chemicals and liquids. (Other devices that employ so-called “stand-off” scanners, which pose no privacy problems and which may do a better job of indicating liquids hidden in clothing, are being tested currently.)
The rush to install these back-scatter x-ray machines brings to mind the boondoggle just a couple of years ago, when the government spent millions of dollars to install “puffer” machines at airports around the country. Where are these snazzy machines now? They’re sitting in warehouses. Why? Because they didn’t work properly and kept breaking down.
It’s one thing for a parent to rush to Toys R Us to plunk down a few dollars for the latest toy fad; only to discover a few days or weeks later that their kids have broken or lost interest in the devices. It’s quite another for the US government to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to buy equipment supposed to ensure the safety of the citizenry without properly testing and ensuring it will in fact – and over the long run – do what it is supposed to do.
The rush for technological gadgetry obscures continuing deficiencies in our government’s ability and indeed, willingness, to do what it ought to be doing to help ensure commercial air safety. No, it’s not the nonsensical new regulations that would prohibit passengers from using the on-board lavatories or which prohibit covering oneself with a blanket because many airlines insist on keeping their cabins five degrees cooler than the outside ambient air temperature.
It’s called practicing good “intelligence.”
Airport security devices that detect weapons and explosives are fine and necessary (if they work and are not overly invasive); but they are – or should be viewed as — a last line of defense. The first – and best – defense is good, sound and timely intelligence that is then acted on by the right people at the right time. This means using such intelligence on known and would-be terrorists to develop intelligence-based criteria as a basis for conducting legitimate airport screening.
This is not “profiling.” Profiling of all or a segment of a racial, religious, ethnic or national group is a fool’s errand. It may sound nice to talk-show hosts, but if we spend time and resources searching everyone who fits a pre-conceived “profile,” all terrorist groups need do to escape such scrutiny would be to enlist persons to carry out their deeds who don’t fit that profile.
On the other hand, employing intelligence-based criteria is neither a static nor an artificial methodology. It relies on coordinating your foreign intelligence operation globally and domestically, and focusing on the ever-changing methodology employed by terrorist groups.
Such an approach is much more cost-effective than rushing to buy the latest technological bells and whistles every time there is a problem or a security breach. Yes, detection devices can and should be a part – an important part – in our arsenal of tools with which to thwart terrorist attacks. But such technology must be employed responsibly, and only after they have been thoroughly tested, and then in a manner consistent with our Constitution and legal system.
The underlying foundation for our entire terrorist defense system must be and remain sound, timely and actionable intelligence. And that should include the use of intelligence-based criteria for airport and port-of-entry screening.