If public policy positions gain special currency when they make it to the New York Times op-ed page, TSA may finally acquire an aviation security capability the country is sorely missing. In a column filled with painful examples, Maureen Dowd makes clear that the nation's current checkpoint practices are broken. Here's how to fix them.
As I wrote last November, "the transportation security system should be founded on the premise that we must make the haystack smaller, not create more needles."
Today, TSA thinks all passengers present an equal potential threat when they get to the checkpoint. In general, this is absurd, but with two million fliers a day across the country, it's dysfunctional.
We should no longer accept heartbreaking treatment of innocent Americans at the airport who are on their way to a meeting or to see Mickey. Even more important, we should no longer tolerate a security system that is nearly blind and that wastes precious resources before every flight. The nonsense taking place today plays into our enemies' hands while doing virtually nothing to identify potential threats.
A system that would make screening smarter and more humane has been on the drawing board for years. The first try, named CAPPS2, was shelved for overreaching. The second iteration, Secure Flight, was announced in 2004 but was later stripped down to the plain-vanilla watch list checking capability that exists today. We need an enhanced screening system that determines whether passengers present a potential terrorist threat before they arrive at the screening checkpoint.
How do we get back on track?
• Restart testing of a passenger screening system that identifies potential threats (including those not on a terrorist watch list) and removes most screener discretion.
Preliminary testing of such a system was undertaken in 2004-05; today, with support from Congress, TSA should finalize program parameters and restart testing, and Congress, the privacy groups, and the media should perform close oversight while supporting the overall objective. Today, Secure Flight only checks the watch list, and that's wildly inadequate.
• Authorize TSA to collect additional data on each passenger as needed to identify potential threats who are not on a terrorist watch list.
Over the years, concerns about TSA's ability to protect passengers' personal information have been used to stop development of the advanced screening system the country needs. Secure Flight today contains significant public disclosures, Congressional reporting requirements, software design elements, audit trails, and a strict chain of command to prevent abuse of passenger data. These measures should be tightened, and oversight enhanced, but TSA has proven itself capable of protecting data effectively and if additional information on passengers, like an address, is needed, so be it.
Complaints about TSA data security are a red herring and are used to delay improvements. This has to stop.
• Reduce the number of dumb mistakes (honest errors will always be with us).
Today, all passengers are treated (or mistreated) equally. An advanced, sophisticated approach is long overdue. Instead of giving TSA workers discretion, install a screening system with just a few clear classifications. For example, passengers in categories 3 or 4 would be patted down, but those in 1 and 2 would not be (except at random in very limited cases). This will do more to protect six year-olds and grandma than screeners trying to make split-second decisions at the checkpoint.
If road warriors are going to return to lace-up shoes, if little kids are going to leave their Velcro in place, and if our grandmothers are going to be able to pack one fewer pair of pumps, we need a screening system that identifies potential threats. The roadmap above is a good place to start.
Justin P. Oberman was the third employee of TSA, helping start the agency in November 2001. He later served as Assistant Administrator for Transportation Threat Assessment and Credentialing, responsible for launching the Secure Flight program in August 2004, as well as other programs to identify potential terrorist threats in the transportation industry. Today, he helps security and transportation companies raise growth capital. He can be reached directly at email@example.com.
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