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Have We Learned to Fight Terrorism?

Six years after 9-11, have we learned how to prevent terrorism? Perhaps, as there has not been a successful attack in the U.S. since then. On the other hand, it is hard to defend our current approach to airport security. After watching the TSA subject a three-year-old to the explosives-sniffing "blower" at an airport, my friend Amos Guiora, formerly a counter-terrorism specialist with the Israeli Defense Forces, wonders "where are we?"

What does subjecting a 3-year-old to the blower unattended by a parent (his mother went through the blower previously) tell me?

It tells me that we have yet to begin risk assessment and analysis, identifying legitimate threats has not been begun and sophisticated cost-benefit analysis of counter-terrorism is apparently in its infancy. How dangerous is this? Very.

As long as 3-year-old boys are made to go through blowers at airport security lines, we clearly are not focusing our limited resources on genuine threats. Rather than develop sophisticated prototyping models, we only hear "you have been selected for a random search."

Of course, this assumes that airport security is really about preventing terrorist attacks, as opposed to sufficiently inconveniencing air travelers so they feel a bit more secure.

UPDATE: In a related vein, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton ask "Are We Safer?"

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Three-Year-Olds and Airport Security:
  2. Have We Learned to Fight Terrorism?
62 Comments
Three-Year-Olds and Airport Security:

Amos Guiora's op-ed on the failings of airport security prompted significant response, here and elsewhere. Among other things, readers debated whether his example of TSA subjecting a three-year-old to the explosive-detecting "blower" was a good example of poor prioritization and a failure to focus on resources on actual threats. In response to these comments, Amos e-mails the following:

In reading the numerous responses here (and on other blogs and websites), I have been struck by the clear sense of concern with respect to airport security. While we may disagree over methods implemented, the overwhelming expression is one of great concern. I share that concern.

As for the three-year-old child, I believe that what I observed illustrates the need for concern about current airport security. To clarify the situation, the child's mother had already passed through prior and was waiting on the other side but was not allowed to accompany her child inside the blower. The child was told to stand still in the blower, as this is required to guarantee an accurate read of explosive material, but you can imagine the effectiveness of this instruction to a three year old. This raises significant questions regarding the efficacy of subjecting the child to the test.

I advocate highly trained individuals carefully screening travelers predicated on the four step process measures articulated in the article (risk assessment, threat analysis, intelligence gathering and cost-benefit analysis of counter-terrorism). What I (and many others) have observed was "rote-based" screening predicated on a random check devoid of discretion.

My professional experience has taught me the absolute supremacy (in terms of importance) of intelligence information that is viable, reliable and corroborated. That little boy was not made to go through the blower because of "hot" intelligence; rather he was there because of a fundamental inability to discern real threats. The counter-terrorism policy that is represented by this particular incident (which is why it is important in guaging where we are six years after 9/11) is best described as "groping in the dark". That is the fundamental concern I sought to allay in asking both "where are we?" and "how do we move forward?"

UPDATE: Based upon some of the comments, I think it is worth clarifying that the "blower" is not designed to detect a bomb hidden on the passenger, but on whether the individual has been in contact with materials used for making bombs. Also, for those commenters who disagree with Amos, do you believe that random, rote screening is the best we can do? It might be. It might be the case, for example, that the TSA is incapable of replicating the screening approach adopted by Israeli security. Is such pessimism justified? Amos is not claiming that children and others should never be searched. Rather, his claim is that randomized screening of children is pointless and not cost-effective. To be sure, El Al security has uncovered efforts to hide bombs in the luggage of pregnant women, and the like, but Amos assures me that this was not due to randomized screening.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Three-Year-Olds and Airport Security:
  2. Have We Learned to Fight Terrorism?
51 Comments