11/23/2010 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tamping Down Pat-Downs

Even though I left the TSA five years ago, my phone has been ringing off the hook the last several weeks.

"Why are we frisking little kids and grandparents?"

"Why don't we profile?"

"Why can't I be patted by a screener of the opposite sex?"

"Were they this dumb when you were there?"

While I'm not sure that last one is a compliment (and, yes, TSA is getting smarter every year), my answers to the first two are as follows:

First, pat-downs have been in place since 9/11 and have been enhanced in recent weeks because:

  1. Our intel isn't good enough to know who the bad guys are, or which flights they're on
  2. Top-down rules are critical; with 2 million people on 35,000 flights a day, too much latitude at each airport will lead to utter chaos
  3. Congress requires it
  4. It deters terrorist activity; clearly, our enemies our advancing their tactics but that's in response to the measures we've put in place
  5. TSA is charged with protecting all of us and must use its judgment -- as well as the Constitution and the law -- to provide security. Trust me, federal officials and screeners enjoy requiring intrusive screening no more than everyday Americans enjoy being subjected to it.

Second, until there is a fundamental shift of priorities to improve our ability to identify who may present a threat before they even get to the airport, the unpleasantness will and should continue.

The shoe bomber was British, the underwear bomber was from Nigeria, and both likely would have evaded most bloggers' favorite profiling schemes. Further, both bombers were on inbound international flights, which are not subject to screening by TSA.

What we do know is that our intel isn't good enough. While it needs to improve, the fact that it will never be sufficient is really the most important point. Effective security -- whether at JFK airport, in downtown Jerusalem or at Bagram Air Base -- is about layers. In aviation, we pre-screen travelers to make sure they're not on a watch list; we observe behavior and physically screen at security checkpoints; we lock the cockpit door; we train flight attendants; we arm some pilots and put air marshals on some flights; and we're at the ready to scramble fighters, etc.

Since our ability to identify potential terrorist threats is full of holes (i.e. the underwear bomber's father told the State Department he was a problem and he still made it on the flight), we introduce physical techniques and randomness into the process. This approach will always be part of our security program, and always should be.

Where do we go from here?

TSA will continue to monitor and adjust pat-down policy, will continue to improve access to and analysis of intel (having a former Deputy Director of the FBI in charge of the agency is a great asset), and will continue to deploy ever more precise technology.

But as I said earlier, until there is a fundamental shift of priorities to improve our ability to identify who may present a threat before they even get to the airport, the unpleasantness will continue.

TSA has been well-intentioned in this area, starting with CAPPS2 and later Secure Flight, but for reasons that are too numerous to list, these programs have yet to overcome serious privacy concerns and challenges to execution.

The best path forward is to resurrect now-dormant efforts to go beyond who's on a watch list (neither the shoe or underwear bomber were), and to do so with even stricter privacy controls in place. How to do this will be the subject of my next post; in the meantime, take everything out of your pockets, keep smiling, and enjoy your turkey.

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.