Security Mythology

At a press conference today, the President was asked to comment on the controversy over Transportation Security Agency pat-downs and full body scanners at airports.  He responded as follows:

“With respect to the TSA, let me, first of all, make a confession. I don’t go through security checks to get on planes these days, so I haven’t personally experienced some of the procedures that have been put in place by TSA. I will also say that in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing, our TSA personnel are, properly, under enormous pressure to make sure that you don’t have somebody slipping on a plane with some sort of explosive device on their persons. And since the explosive device that was on Mr. Abdulmutallab was not detected by ordinary metal detectors, it has meant that TSA has had to try to adapt to make sure that passengers on planes are safe.

Now, that’s a tough situation. One of the most frustrating aspects of this fight against terrorism is that it has created a whole security apparatus around us that causes huge inconvenience for all of us. And I understand people’s frustrations. And what I’ve said to the TSA is that you have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety. And you also have to think through are there ways of doing it that are less intrusive.

But at this point, TSA, in consultation with our counterterrorism experts, have indicated to me that the procedures that they’ve been putting in place are the only ones right now that they consider to be effective against the kind of threat that we saw in the Christmas Day bombing.

But I’m going to… every week I meet with my counterterrorism team and I’m constantly asking them whether…. is what we’re doing absolutely necessary? Have we thought it through? Are there other ways of accomplishing it that meet the same objectives?”

The first part of President Obama’s answer illustrates the absurdity of modern American airport security procedures.  Of course we wouldn’t expect the President to be subjected to invasive pat-downs and body scans before he boards Air Force One.  The problem is that we’re subjecting a lot of people to silly security rules that ignore who they are.  We’re not targeting our security efforts.  We’re not looking for terrorists, we’re looking for the implements of terror.

Over at Red State on Thursday, Eric Erickson relates the story of a group of soldiers on the way home from Afghanistan, boarding a plane with their weapons after being double-checked by security, who were nevertheless hassled over a pair of nail clippers.  A guy carrying an assault rifle had his nail clippers confiscated because they might have been used to take over the plane.  The stupidity of these invasive TSA procedures grows from the fabulous expense of pretending everyone is an equally dangerous potential threat, stretching the limits of common sense like a soap bubble until they burst.  Harriet Baskas of MSNBC brings us a charming tale from Detroit, in which a retired special education teacher who survived bladder cancer ended up covered in his own urine after the TSA decided to drag him into an office and break the seal on his urostomy bag during an enhanced pat-down.

As many have remarked, this is the opposite of the approach taken in Israel, which manages polite and efficient airline security by using human intelligence to focus security procedures.  Isaac Yeffet, veteran of the Israeli secret services and former director of security for El Al Airlines, has been making the rounds of talk shows explaining that effective airport security involves discrimination, access to intelligence information, and what political correctness would dismiss as “profiling.”  In a January 2010 interview with CNN, he advised, “Stop relying on technology.  Technology can help the qualified, well-trained human being but cannot replace him.”

Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano endlessly invoke the Underpants Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as justification for the increasingly unpopular episodes of security theater performed at our airports.  Neither pat-downs nor body scanners would have detected him.  The only reason his underpants didn’t detonate and take out the plane was that he mixed the explosives incorrectly.  He was thwarted by poor chemistry, not clumsy and draconian security.

How would Israeli security have handled him?  Yeffet explains:

“We had all the information that we could dream the security people could get. He was on the list of people connected to al Qaeda. I don’t need more to understand that when he comes, I am not looking for more evidence. He is suspicious; I have to take care of him.

His father called the U.S. Embassy a month before he took the flight and told the U.S. Embassy that his son had called and said this was the last time you were going to hear from me. And the father warned the U.S. Embassy that his son was going to do something bad, watch him. What happened to this information?

The guy bought a ticket and paid $3,000 cash. … No one knew the information that we had about him, no one could interview him and to ask him why is he flying to America?”

The kind of measures Yeffet is talking about would involve common sense, effective cooperation between security agencies, and treating people differently when ideology dictates they be seen as identical faceless silhouettes.  It would demonstrate respect for a public that is increasingly restless about being told it has no choice but to quietly accept whatever indignities the government sees fit to inflict.  It would not have involved pumping millions of “stimulus” dollars into the same rusty old government spending machinery, to buy full body scanners from a Rapiscan – a company represented by a former Secretary of Homeland Security, with stock owned by George Soros.

All the usual forces shaping every decision of this enormous, blind government conspired to give us theatrical performances based on security mythology, which the President defends with robotic monotony to this day.  Captive airport audiences are making a lot of noise about skipping future productions.