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TSA: True Safety Averted

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In light of recent events sparked by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), there has been much debate and discussion over the importance of balancing civil liberties with national safety. There is no doubt that this is an important conversation worth having in regards to issues like military tribunals or wiretapping. However, debating this political trade-off is irrelevant when discussing TSA security procedures. Trade-offs imply receiving something in return for a sacrifice. While Americans are increasingly expected to forgo any right to privacy and personal liberty, TSA policies have continuously proven ineffective in carrying out their promised goals. Their new policies on bodyscanners and pat-downs have come to symbolize a decade of flawed administration.

The most obvious irony that emerges when discussing the newly controversial body scanners is that a policy designed to promote passenger safety can actually jeopardize it. While the verdict is still out on studying the health risks associated with these body scanners, many red flags have already been raised. The Allied Pilots Association (the union for all American pilots) has urged its members to opt out of a body scanning due to the "ionizing radiation, which could be harmful to their health." Specifically, studies out of the University of California and Johns Hopkins University sight a growing fear that these scanners could potentially lead to skin cancer. While the TSA vehemently denies these assertions, they simultaneously refuse to allow for an independent and secondary evaluation of its scanners.

The TSA's war on the scientific method extends beyond the scanner's health effects to their perceived benefit on national security. While these scanners prove effective in detecting a bottle of Tylenol on an older mother or a case of contact solution on a young student, they are ineffective at detecting the new and more complicated liquid combinations used for explosives by terrorists. Former chief of security at the Israel Airport Authority, Rafi Seli summarizes their flaws in noting, "I don't know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747." While the TSA presents these machines as the future to aviation security, Italy has dumped their usage of scanners after just six months of operation. The President of Italy's aviation authority, Vito Riggio noted in addition to being excessively time consuming, the machines simply are not effective in ensuring safety.

The failure of these body scanners is part of a larger concern with regards to the TSA and their security focus. The incompetence of the TSA in the past decade results from their continuously retroactive approach to national security instead of a proactive one. Simply, Americans will not be safe as long as the TSA continues to focus on the "what" instead of the "who." Terrorists act and organize in cells, and thus use ever evolving and adapting methods to accomplish their goals. Attempting to deter terrorists by anticipating their methods will inevitably prove futile; they will adapt to the status quo and operate out of another perceived weakness in the system. After banning knifes and sharp objects following 9/11, Richard Reid used a shoe bomb to evade security. Following the forceful removal of all shoe wear, al Qaeda operatives used liquid explosives. After banning passengers from carrying liquids, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab employed plastic explosives hidden in his underwear during his attempted Christmas Day bombing. As a result we have universal body scanners, but one can only imagine the terrorists' response. The TSA's retroactive approach is clearly designed to thwart past terrorists instead of future ones.

While the TSA has set out to strike "a balance between privacy and safety" their approach is simply failing on both accounts. Despite a TSA aversion to empirical evidence and practical analysis, a thorough examination of Israeli security procedures could offer noteworthy improvements to both American security and passenger liberties. Despite a history filled with never-ending threats from the Arab world, Israeli's have experienced a greater degree of safety in the air than their American counterparts. Without a terrorist attack on an airplane in nearly four decades, Israel's proactive approach is one worth replicating. While many critics of the "Israelification" of security proceedings cite its use of racial profiling, the system is actually designed around behavioral profiling. At several different points throughout security proceedings, passengers are stopped and questioned. These conversations with travelers are conducted in car lines, identification stations, and baggage drop-off areas. In the process, Israeli security guards roam the area in search of suspicious behavior. Although a terrorist could potentially elude one Israeli agent, there is little chance his intentions can be hidden from an entire team.

As the TSA is focused on examining the contents of our shoes and that of our liquid containers, Israeli officials are studying the eyes and the mental disposition of its travelers. Israeli security expert, Rafi Seia summarizes the contrast in noting, "Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes, and that's how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys." In a prime example, one needs to only examine the TSA's failure with the Christmas Day bomber to understand a larger systematic failure in American security. Abdulmutallab had been placed on various terrorist watch lists and had recently journeyed to Yemen to "network" with Al Qaeda. If the TSA had been focused on the man's character instead of his possessions, the incident would have been averted.

While those who believe the TSA is on the proper path to security are mistaken, it is equally foolish to assume that a uniform copy of Israeli's security system is the complete solution to all of our woes. The Israeli system relies intensely on scrutiny over a passenger's travel records and personal background. While there is much outrage over these new pat downs and body scanners, obtaining access to personal information has proven difficult in the past. In 2003, Congress rejected the Bush administration's proposal to obtain "itineraries and related information" for all domestic travelers. However in light of new procedures, Americans would rather see the examination of their personal information than that of their private parts. Finally, the inevitable debate emerges about racial profiling. While the Israeli system is designed to detect suspicious behavior and not specific races, the overwhelming majority of people apprehended are Arabs. Although our security would be increased by adopting methods similar to that of Israeli's, the government would still be faced with a fight from civil liberties organizations.

All the American people are asking for is open discussion on this issue -- based on empirical evidence and not the ideology of fear. Instead, the American people have been ignored in favor of high-powered lobbyists. Makers of body scanners have spent millions of dollars over the course of the past year in lobbying the government for permanent use of their machines. L-3 Communications which has sold $39.7 million in scanners to the government, allocated over $4.3 million for lobbying purposes in just the first nine months of the calendar year. These lobbying firms recently worked hard to defeat a bill proposed by Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) to limit the use of body scanners at the airport. Somehow a feeling lingers that L-3 Communications and their lobbyists' objections to this bill were not based on the long-term interest of the American people, but rather their short term profit margin.

The most startling result of this entire debate over the use of body scanners has been the complete 180-degree turn of the Obama Administration and also it's foot soldiers in the Democratic Party. While our favorite constitutional law professor ran for the presidency on the notion of balancing civil liberties with security, President Obama has proven to distance himself from the ongoing debate. Similar to his lack of movement on Guantanamo and wiretapping, the President's actions on airport security lag well beyond his words. However, if the President truly believes that body scanners and pat downs are the most effective method to ensuring safety, then he needs to set the example and not hide behind the TSA. Similar to President Jimmy Carter's turning down the thermostat and wearing a sweater to support his new energy policy, President Barack Obama should agree to a full body scan or a groping pat-down before every flight on Air Force One to support his national security plan. American safety and civil liberties are serious issues, but America cannot afford to settle for a policy that does injustice to the former and the latter.