Tuesday, January 5, 2010

In one man's opinion

When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted the in-flight bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas day the immediate fall out was a demand for mandatory backscatter X-ray machines in U.S. airports. On the counter side of the coin privacy advocates have continually argued that this type of technology not only violates personal privacy but may prove to be the end privacy as we know it.

Aviation Security officials have responded that if we are to be secure in our travel that we must all be willing to sacrifice some personal liberty for “safety's sake”. The problem is that the air travel situation in this country is an amazing first world nightmare. Airlines are constantly in a poor financial state year end and year out. And it seems five years can not go by with out one major air carrier seeking protection from bankruptcy.

There is the constant problem of planes being late, passengers stranded on board for hours, and additional fees for having the audacity to pack luggage. Add to it the ineffective bureaucratic and politically correct nightmare of federally controlled aviation security. The band-aid on the band aid solution of treating the cancer that is terrorism.

I will contend immediately that I am not an expert in aviation security. However, one must realize that the security issues that passengers contend with prior to boarding airplanes is not in itself aviation security. Rather it is access control, and when done effectively it is also target hardening. The second thing we must remember is that terrorism is theater.

Whatever the body count is at the end of the day whether it is a suicide bomb in Falujah or the attacks on 9/11, the concept is to use fear, dead bodies, and streaming television to grind the target audience to a dead stop. To the point that everything stops. Whether it's the fruit market or the financial one.

Fourteen years in the private security industry I have at times been retained by various corporations to conduct physical security auditing in order to look for holes in their already implemented security procedures. The first thing I tell them is that every system has points of failure, but this does not necessarily reflect that the entire system is in and of itself a failure. The second thing that I do is let them know that between two sets of dates I will attempt to physically breach their security.

When weak and vulnerable areas are exposed the clients will almost immediately request the latest technology to solve the problem, and in some cases technology is the answer.

However there is no such thing as a 100% solution in the world of security. And like any other ongoing fight adapting to the situation is the key to finding, and then exploiting your enemies weaknesses. And that is precisely what is being done to us. Because to some we are the enemy they are fighting.

The problems, and there are many. Begin with feel good politics. You can rely on technology only so far, but ask any security professional for a real answer in preventing terrorism in the skies and they will tell you profiling.

We have demonized this word on the already too large alter of political correctness. If you say profiling then automatically it is insinuated that you mean “racial” profiling. In truth what Hollywood calls profiling and the media demonizes the F.B.I. calls “criminal investigative analysis”. Which is in effect the third wave of investigative science.

The first wave, developed by Scotland Yard in the 1800s was the study of clues left by the criminal themselves, the second wave is the study of the crime itself. Whereas the “third” wave is the study of the criminal's psyche.

Profiling (in my own opinion) suffers from its own prejudices within the criminal investigative community. For instance, when the Beltway sniper was shooting people the F.B.I. “Profilers” believed they should be looking for a white male who was disgruntled against the U.S. Government and was also a gun rights advocate. They further felt that he may be apart of a larger group (militia) and that this may be part of a domestic terrorism program being delivered.

Analyst were shocked to discover that the Belt Way Sniper was in fact a pair Muslim black males. The ring leader John Allen Muhammad when finally caught stated that he was waging a “jihad”.

This is not to say that profiling is a failure. Quite the contrary Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway (the Green River Killer) were caught through criminal investigative analysis. So we know that “Profiling” does in deed work, however one must keep an open mind about the unknowns they are investigating. Local law enforcement also needs to step out of the dark ages and embrace the fact that not only are we in a war, but that it is not just a military problem to contend with overseas. And so do rank and file civilians.

The problem we face with this new backscatter 3d imaging in that not only is it still in its early years, where we can not be sure of what health implications after long term and prolonged exposure. It also is one more “thing” that leads us to become complacent, lulled into a false comfort where technology begins to replace the intense hard work of criminal detection.

While backscatter technology can inform the screener that a person has something in their pocket that is non-metal in nature it can not say whether it is hand sanitizer or fertilizer, or C-4.

The fact of the matter is we already have some of the best bomb detection “technology” available to us, that would lead to more job opportunities and long term employment. It has an amazing rate of success, is able to give an immediate profile with no prejudices inherited to its system. And for every new scanner placed in an airport ten-twelve explosive detection “systems” could be deployed. I am of course talking about K-9 bomb detection units.

It would put more man power in the airports, provide long reaching job opportunities in every way from breeders, trainers, educators, to officers/handlers. Yet since it isn't “new” or “glamorous” we won't pursue it as an idea

If the United States was committed to fighting the war-on-terror-in-the-skies posters of wanted terrorists would line the numerous bare walls in airports giving people a heads up to be on the look out for these suspected individuals. This would be akin to the highly successful television series America's Most Wanted (as of the date of this writing has led to the capture of 1,099 individuals).

Instead we have a nebulous “no fly list” of suspected individuals which according to Homeland Security's Michael Chertoff only contains the names of 2,500 people while the ACLU contends that the number of individuals suspected and listed to varying degrees actually numbers around one million. Including persons who have criticized the TSA publicly (bloggers included).

The time as come that we must realize that while the rank and file TSA agents have a difficult job, we need to do away with the men an women in nice blazers and clip on ties and replace them with well trained highly motivated armed men and women in BDUs. It is also time that we employed our National Guard on the exterior of our airports and began giving them mass education in civil liberties.

Someone needs to lead the charge to turn our airports into money making business enterprises instead of bureaucratic city controlled chaos. The result would be efficiency, profitability, and security. Imagine if Lee Iacocca ran Laguardia.

As presented to us now, the powers that be have no intention of making air travel any safer (or more convenient for that matter) only a politically correct appearance of doing something. Unless of course the idea is to frustrate the terrorists with delays and inefficiency.

We need our elected officials to step up and stop this continual interruption of free commerce by delaying business persons who need to move about the country in order to restore our economy and end this concept that it is better to inhibit the personal privacy of all rather than offend the sensibilities of some.

Because the last time I checked the war out there that continually comes to our soil from the air is not being waged by old women in orthopedic shoes and five year olds with apple juice containers. It is being waged by Muslim Extremists who seek to kill, murder, destroy....and terrorize.


Anonymous said...

As you usual your "straight forward" candor is a breath of fresh air, and I think you make some very valid points on how security and economy can go hand in hand.I'd like to forward this onto my congressman if you don't mind.

ASM826 said...

Don’t fly.
If you make an exception due to dire necessity, such as a death in the family, then accept the treatment you will receive. Otherwise, don’t fly.

Airline companies are marginal businesses. Full planes are profitable, planes half full are not.

If we want to change the way we are treated by the airlines and the TSA, the only way to do it is to stop accepting the mistreatment. It is the same thing as a battered woman that does nothing to separate herself from her abuser. People that know her shake their head and wonder why she keeps going back, knowing that more abuse was inevitable.

So here’s the plan. Drive. Don’t travel by plane. Take trips closer to home. Take a cruise. If it’s work related, do it by video conference. If 20 % of the people that will fly in 2010 did not, and let the airlines know the reason for their decision, changes would occur.

But if you pay your money to line up and be mistreated, and you already know it’s going to happen, exactly whose fault is that?

Robert McDonald said...

Great post! I just have to stay away from airports. I can't reward stupidity by actually using one.

I like your ideas, and I'd love to see them get put in place.

James R. Rummel said...

Good post.

Yrro said...

It's amazing how much incompetence can lead to both a worse state for civil liberties *and* worse physical security at the same time.

No-fly lists are fine - as long as there is a proper appeal procedure for being removed and a proper warrant type procedure for being added.

Searches are fine - as long as those doing them are trained and heavily emphasized that the vast majority of people they are searching are innocent and have rights that must be respected.

Personally I love dogs and would be happy to see a few more well trained GSD's when I go through the airport :)

The problem with profiling is the vast number of false positives. There have been studies showing that much FBI profiling is little more than cold reading - they throw out enough vague ideas that some of them have to be right. That isn't to say that we shouldn't look where the clues point us - if someone goes to a mosque that's one thing, if they go to the same mosque as known terrorists it's possibly something else -- as the common example goes, if you get picked up because a black man in a red suburban just robbed a bank, it isn't profiling if that's what you're driving. But we shouldn't make traveling complete hell for everyone who happens to be Muslim/Afghani/Saudi/whatever.

As for boycotting the airlines - the cynic in me says they'll just be bailed out anyway, and no one will ever think to blame it on the security theatre.

Anonymous said...

I just got introduced to your blog through your Dark arts series, by a co-worker. Love your writing style, your honest demeanor and subtle tongue-in-cheek humor make it all the worth while.

I think you have a great "opinion" on the issue and more people should listen. It's a difficult situation all around with regards to air travel, safety and national security no doubt.

Anonymous said...

to quote Yrro "But we shouldn't make traveling complete hell for everyone who happens to be Muslim/Afghani/Saudi/whatever."

Well it wasn't a group of American Indians, Indian Indians, White Guys, Black Guys, Asian Guys, Russians or Eskimos who tried to blow up a plane on Christmas or flew into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or fell to their death in Pennsylvania.

So buy your statement we all have to go through the "hell" of traveling because we are not them???????????

Or here is a thought. Check their Visa stamps for crying out loud and if their expired say "no" to entry.

Anonymous said...

Why cant we have prescreening stations where every person that is scheduled to board a plane, has to report and be screened or asked specific questions pertaining to the nature of their flight, the reason they are flying and if they are carrying any type of weapon or explosive device or anything that is meant to harm or kill others? The questions could be asked by FBI, Homeland security or other trained professionals that can detect nervousness or other suspicious behaviour and if the person displays said behaviour, can be taken to another area and questioned further and if need be..searched, strip searched, xrayed or any process necessary to make certain of the persons intentions? Eye to eye, face to face, question and response...isnt this worth a try?

Anonymous said...

Since when do I ever have to tell anyone why I'm traveling.

The fact that I'm traveling on a given flight is all anyone ever needs to know.

"Ihre Papiere, bitte" I don't think so.

Joe angrily said...

....asked specific questions pertaining to the nature of their flight, the reason they are flying and if they are carrying any type of weapon or explosive device or anything that is meant to harm or kill others?


Beside SouthWest would have to change all those commercials from

"you are free to move about the country"


"You are now permitted to move about the country."

I don't F****** think so.

Matthew said...

In Israel an IDF Soldier looks you in the eye and decides whether or not you can get on the plane.

Obviously there is more to their security than that. Like facial recognition scans being done before you ever hit the inside of their airports. But the last time there was an incident at Ben Gurion Airport was when an Israeli citizen mistakenly packed a handgun onto his carry on.....in 2002, i.e. 8 years ago.

The WatchCat said...

The other issue I'm seeing is poor training of security personnel. Going through security in Italy, I set off the metal detector. They frisked me, wiped me down for explosive residue... but did not inspect the tube of Chapstick I'd accidentally left in my pocket. A 2 inch long canister...they didn't even have me open it.

In this instance, of course, it wasn't a security problem (it really was chapstick) but it illustrates the underlying issue. By setting off the metal detector, I merited further inspection. Yet they overlooked this warning when dealing with something that could have concealed a small blade.

We'll continue having problems as long as we hire doormen instead of real security.

Broadsword said...

A question for TSA. Is it possible to determine, without searching, who does not need to be searched? As their answer is no, then the war on nail clippers, tweezers, shampoo bottles and snow globes will continue?

the Seattler said...

Best commentary I have yet to read on this situation. Excellent Post.

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