The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) recently
announced that it was re-instituting random screening of passengers at gates.
Of course, the reality is that TSA has been conducting additional screening
at gates since July 2008 per
the TSA's own Web site:
"If you are flying in or out of a U.S. airport this summer you may
notice Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) conducting random additional
screening at airline gates.
"The screening – part of TSA's Aviation Direct Access Screening Program
(ADASP) – can include checking passenger identification and boarding passes,
conducting physical searches of carry-on luggage, using handheld explosive
detection units, and screening of individuals. These checks are not announced
in advance and can occur at any gate, at any time."
to TSA spokesperson Lara Uselding:
The move to restore random gate checks developed "as the agency
evolved," not because of a specific threat.
"Gate screening is particularly effective at addressing insider
threats and serves as a random and unpredictable security layer that,
like all TSA's security measures, was developed using a risk-based approach."
"Everything we do here at TSA is for a reason, it's not made to
make travelers' lives a hassle."
One can only wonder what possessed TSA (and exactly whom at TSA) to decide
that additional random screening at airport gates was a necessary – and effective
– security measure. Although TSA claims that everything it does is for a reason,
in the next breath the agency admits that the decision wasn't because of a
specific threat. Put another way: there's no real or compelling reason for
doing it. So while TSA asserts the purpose is not to hassle travelers, their
own logic smacks of "because we can." And because they can, protesting
if you are one of the unfortunate random selections means TSA can choose to
make your traveling experience less than pleasant – including making you miss
TSA wants us to believe that the need for additional random screening is the
result of risk-based analysis. Risk is a complex function based on several
variables: threat, vulnerability, consequence (cost and effect), and likelihood.
By its own admission, there is no specific threat that warrants random gate
screening. In strict mathematical terms, if the threat is zero, then risk –
by definition – would also be zero. Certainly there are potential consequences;
9/11 was a tragic demonstration of that. And presumably there is some likelihood,
though it is probably impossible to accurately assess or calculate. So that
leaves vulnerability as a deciding factor.
If vulnerability is the reason, then TSA has a lot of explaining to do. Travelers
routinely practically disrobe going through airport security to get to their
gate: taking off their shoes, removing coats and sweaters, making sure they
aren't wearing anything metal such as belts and jewelry, and separating laptops
and liquids and gels (limited to no more than 3-ounce containers in a single
quart-sized bag) from their carry-on luggage. Their bags then pass through
X-ray inspection. Passengers walk through metal detectors. And they can be
subjected to additional searches of their persons and effects. So despite this
relatively intrusive security check, is TSA saying that airplanes are still
vulnerable to hijacking? That possibility seems difficult to fathom when current
security screening is combined with secure cockpit doors and the possibility
of armed pilots.
If TSA is worried about explosives or improvised explosive devices (IEDs),
then waiting until someone gets to a gate is probably too late. Although they
might be prevented from boarding an airplane and blowing it up in flight, they
could still blow themselves up – and everyone nearby – at the gate or boarding
lounge. For that matter, they could do the same thing while going through security.
So is TSA telling us that Dane
Cook's Saturday Night Live skit is more fact than fiction?
At least one aviation security expert, Richard
Roth, thinks that the reasons might be fears about airport workers, who
are not routinely screened and could sneak weapons into secure areas of airports
to give to passengers. If that's the case, then airports need to do a more
thorough job of screening workers rather than subjecting passengers to more
President Barack Obama campaigned on the need for change. But going back to
random passenger screening at airport gates is not the kind of change we need.