Alternative to TSA pat-downs: More background checks
JOSH GERSTEIN in the Washington’s Politico describes a new trend to improve the “screening capability” by use of a new “big brother” facility: for sure different aspects of privacy should be explored
If Americans don’t want the government touching their “junk” to improve air security, the alternative may well be greater scrutiny of passengers’ travel histories and personal backgrounds, security experts say.
The public backlash against the aggressive pat-downs the federal government rolled out this month could put more pressure on the government to introduce security measures previously rejected on privacy grounds, including in-depth interrogations of travelers at airports, government scrutiny of passengers’ airline information, and even creation of a secure, standardized national ID card.
“The question is, which kind of privacy do you want to have?” said Stewart Baker, a top Department of Homeland Security official during the Bush administration. “This has been a pretty searing experience for DHS. Obviously, we’re not going to do more in this area [of physical checks] and it would be welcome if we could do less….The alternative is to look for terrorists in advance.”
That approach to security, Baker said, calls for singling out suspicious passengers and subjecting them to intense questioning.
“We’re going to gather information about people we’re going to encounter hours before they arrive. We’ll compare names and travel partners to lists of people, not just no-fly lists, but anyone who’s suspect one way or another,” Baker said. “One hundred and ninety-nine people spend 30 seconds in primary [screening] getting an ID check and moved on, but one person in 200 gets an hour of screening, reviewing their personal effects, and an interrogation that’s very free ranging.”
This kind of system might do away with some of the more jarring images at airport security checkpoints – uniformed Transportation Security Administration officers thoroughly frisking nuns and young children. “Grandma from Dubuque is probably not going to get identified as a risk,” Baker said. “She spends 30 seconds and gets waved through.”
“With a little more information on all passengers, and more careful screening of those who raise red flags, the TSA shakedown of pregnant women, small children and nuns in habit could be made less necessary, or at least less intrusive,” Shannen Coffin, a former legal counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney, wrote at National Review Online.
While there have been complaints about other TSA security rules, including a requirement to remove shoes and strict limits on liquids and gels in carry-on luggage, no TSA procedure has generated as much blowback as the newly adopted procedures, including high-tech body scanners that can penetrate clothing and searches some passengers have compared to sexual molestation.
The use of the scanners, which produce detailed images, produced some protest from privacy advocates and Muslim groups who object on modesty grounds. But those protests didn’t receive as much attention as the more assertive pat-downs.
Fran Townsend, who was one of Bush’s security advisers, said the American psyche and culture views the laying on of hands by anyone in authority as far more serious invasion of privacy than investigating a passenger’s background, submitting him or her to X-rays or searching their belongings.
“We associate in this country, because of our Constitution, the physical touching of people by government or law enforcement as a thing we do only to criminals,” Townsend said. “All of sudden grandma goes through and she’s getting groped. She’s resentful because it’s not what she thinks of as her country…I think Americans want to be supportive of counterterror measures but they need to be persuaded that what is being asked of them is fair, reasonable and effective.”
Gauging public reaction to the pat-downs and body-scans has been tricky: An ABC News/Washington Post poll out Monday found roughly a 50-50 split on whether the pat-downs were a good idea, with about two-thirds supporting use of the body scanners. A USA Today/Gallup poll of Americans who travel at least twice a year found 71 percent thought use of the combined technology was “worth it,” but 57 percent said they were either angry or bothered by the new pat-downs.
The Obama administration’s decision not to publicize the new pat-downs in advance may also have hurt support for the technology. Gallup found travelers nearly evenly split, 48 percent to 47 percent, on whether pat-downs would or would not help find potential terrorists like the Nigerian who allegedly boarded a Detroit-bound jetliner last Christmas Day and tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear. What the polls may reflect is that different individuals value different aspects of privacy.
Some don’t like to be touched, but others are troubled by the idea of a security officer in a separate room examining an image of their body. Others don’t mind those intrusions, but draw the line at authorities scrutinizing their travel history, travel partners or interrogating them about where they’re going and why.
In 2003, privacy advocates, fearing “big brother” intrusions, convinced Congress to block TSA access to itineraries and related information on domestic air travelers, though the government does review information for international flights. A new version of the domestic program gives TSA more limited information, including the names, birth dates and gender information of passengers.
One terrorism expert said the public reaction to the new pat-downs is not surprising, but privacy advocates cannot fairly object to every technique that could be used to improve air security.
“If you walk up to somebody in your office and do [a pat-down], you will be arrested. There’s something peculiar about lots of people lining up to be sexually assaulted,” noted Ben Wittes of the Brookings Institution.
However, “you can’t take the position that there should be no profiling, no intrusive searches, and it’s ridiculous to treat old ladies the same as young men. Those three ideas will not go together,” Wittes said. “At some point, you have to make honest choices about what kind of intrusions you’re more or less worried about, or you have to be open and honest about saying, ‘I’m willing to lose this number of airplanes a year.’…This does have a quality about it of people flatly refusing to make serious choices.”
Wittes also said the overall judgment on what privacy invasions are acceptable have to be made by society and not individual travelers. Otherwise, terrorists will “choose the one most conducive to they’re getting through,” he said.
Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberties Union said his group supports traditional police work to keep planes safe. “What we’ve never said no to is focusing on individual criminals and individual dangers, going back to good old-fashioned law-enforcement techniques to arrest [suspects] before they even get to the airport,” he said.
The ACLU and other groups objected to the collection of airline itinerary information because it amounted to assembling a vast database on lawful unthreatening travelers in what would likely be an unsuccessful effort to find a few suspected terrorists intent on doing harm.
“A lot of our concern was around mass surveillance – this idea that if you collect all this information on everybody and apply some computer algorithm to it, data mine it, and suddenly signs of a terrorist are going to pop out,” Calabrese said. “There’s no science to back that up.” He added that grand jury subpoenas are available to seek itinerary data on suspects in legitimate criminal investigations.
The ACLU, which had for decades opposed all airport security checkpoints as unconstitutional suspicionless searches, dropped that stance after September 11, Calabrese said.
The new battle over pat-downs and scans has allied some conservatives and civil libertarians – up to a point. “The federal fondling is an unconstitutional search and seizure…. We have lost a level of our freedom in order to retain a level of our freedom and that ought to outrage every American whether you fly on an airplane or not,” former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) told Fox News Tuesday. “Do we really think that we’re going to be safer because a 5-year-old boy has his genitals looked at?” However, conservatives are again calling for profiling as an alternative to the enhanced checks. “What we’ve got to do, whether we like it or not, is to discern who is likely to be a person with an intent,” Huckabee said. “We’d profile everybody but we would quit selling or buying machines.”
But Calabrese and others warn that an identity-based system that relies on racial or religious profiles would be ineffective and violate travelers’ rights.
“Terrorists are smart,” he said. “They identify and work around the profiling,”.
Moving to a system that looks more at travelers’ backgrounds and less at what they may be wearing or carrying would also require another important change: greater certainty that a passenger actually is whom he or she claims to be.
Baker noted that Congress’s effort to move to a more secure system based on state-issued driver’s licenses, Real ID, was repeatedly rolled back by Congress and the Bush and Obama administrations.
“As long as it’s possible to get a fake driver’s license, an identity-based security system doesn’t work,” he said.