Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Let's have some more of that failed security theater

It's worth noting that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was thwarted in his Christmas Day attempt to blow an airliner out of the sky, not by institutional security measures, but by an alert passenger and the cabin crew of the airplane in question. It's also worth noting that, rather than take inspiration from Jasper Schuringa's exercise of personal initiative, various government seatwarmers around the world plan more of sort of the sort of security measures that have long failed to do much more than make air travel an unpleasant chore.

Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian dubbed the "Fruit of the Loom bomber" by some wags, attempted to detonate a bomb he'd smuggled on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit as it approached its destination. He'd been allowed to board even though he'd been placed on one of the U.S.government's myriad lists of suspicious persons with terrorist ties after his own father, a prominent Nigerian banker, warned U.S. authorities that Abdulmutallab is dangerous.

Abdulmutallab was brought up short only when passengers on the plane noticed flames after the terrorist ignited his explosive device. They jumped the would-be-bomber and doused the fire. Dutch video director Jasper Schuringa is credited with putting Abdulmutallab in a headlock and stripping and subduing the terrorist with the assistance of flight attendants.

"We had to do something," Schuringa told reporters. Well, yes -- they did. It's very likely that the passengers and crew escaped harm because they quickly reacted to circumstances that they couldn't have foreseen as they happened.

It's difficult, really, to imagine a better defense than people willing and able to take initiative. Dutch authorities have taken a lot of flack for letting Abdulmutallab slip his explosive device through security, but terrorists have had decades to adjust their techniques to ever-tightening security measures at airports. American officials have been called on the carpet to answer for allowing Abdulmutallab to board a U.S.-bound flight when he's listed as a terrorism suspect, but the list he's on -- the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment list -- reportedly contains 550,000 names.

There comes a point of diminishing returns, when you've listed so many potential threats that there's no possible way to react to them in any effective manner. I suspect that point comes somewhere before you tally up a half-million terrorism suspects.

But Abdulmutallab was stopped -- on the plane, by passengers and crew. While the fact that the terrorist plot got that far is being treated as a failure in many quarters, it may have run up against the most effective security measures that there can ever be -- people at the scene who take responsibility and initiative as a threat materializes.

That's the most effective security measure there can ever be because its really the only measure that can't be easily anticipated or evaded by plotters. After all, if they want to harm people, terrorists have to be near people. And those people have the potential to react on the spot, as needed.

That security officials appreciate the value of such flexibility is clear from the Transportation Security Administration's announcement that it will "surge resources as needed on a daily basis" and that "[p]assengers should not expect to see the same thing at every airport."

OK. Flexible is good.

But TSA officials aren't the targets. They're the people the terrorists are evading. No matter how many new checkpoints or measures they put in place -- millimeter-wave scanners, extra baggage checks at gates, behavior detection, dogs, bans on putting anything on your lap or moving around the cabin -- the most officials can do is create hurdles that terrorists must plan for, and that seriously inconvenience anybody who still chooses to travel through the police state that air travel has become.

That government officials know that they engage more in security theater than actual security is pretty clear. The Government Accountability Office has called the TSA on the carpet in the past for implementing procedures without ever bothering to investigate their effectiveness. In a 2007 report, the GAO recommended:
[T]he Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for TSA to develop sound evaluation methods, when possible, that can be used to assist TSA in determining whether proposed procedures would achieve their intended result...
In March 2009, the GAO followed up, finding (PDF):
TSA has taken some actions but has not fully implemented a risk management approach to inform the allocation of resources across the transportation modes (aviation, mass transit, highway, freight rail, and pipeline). ...
Without effectively implementing such controls, TSA cannot provide reasonable assurance that its resources are being used effectively and efficiently to achieve security priorities.
The latest measures will almost certainly be implemented with the same disregard for effectiveness, because they are and can only be primarily for show. Real security doesn't come from lumbering institutions, uniformed snoops and high-tech scanners, it comes from people who take responsibility for themselves.

But what bureaucrat wants to admit that there's only so much he can do? Who wants to put himself out of a job by telling scared travelers that real security comes from emulating Jasper Schuringa?

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