Needed: Smarter Security

There are many reasons to hate Ossama bin Laden. The bombing of the U.S. embassies in East Africa. The bombing of the USS Cole. The terrorist attacks on 9/11. His support of insurgents in Iraq. But perhaps one of the most insidious changes to our society that bin Laden and his followers have wrought is the emerging U.S. security state that has evolved since the 9/11 attacks.

Many things that three and a half years ago were unthinkable are today taken for granted – with more to come in the future. We now wait in long security lines at airports, and must strip off our shoes, jackets, and anything metal – and also have our hand luggage checked – just to board an aircraft. Our checked luggage, at long last, is also screened. If one is flying into or out of Washington, D.C., the bathrooms are off limits during the first and last thirty minutes of each flight.

Although the trend began before 9/11, almost all major office buildings in America’s large cities now require visitors to wait, often in long lines, to be cleared and badged before they are permitted to enter.

Private-sector data-collection firms have expanded and accelerated their accumulation of personal data about almost everyone in the country, and much of the information they have gathered is shared with the government – in the interest of national security. From renting a car and passing through a tollbooth to reserving a plane ticket or making a purchase – either online, or from a store – nearly everything we do finds its way into computers.

In addition, our e-mails are fair game for the government and can be subpoenaed – as both Oliver North and Bill Gates found out, to their chagrin. In short, in our modern post-9/11 world the right of privacy is becoming a luxury of the past, and today is reserved only for the super-wealthy with the wherewithal to adopt expensive countermeasures, travel by private aircraft, and build fortress-like homes with around-the-clock guards, alarms, gates, and walls.

I am often asked, as a security specialist, if we should not revel in this new emphasis on security. The answer is, at best, only a qualified “Yes.” But, although the United States is certainly safer now in some respects than it was prior to 9/11, many of the security measures that have been put in place during the past three and a half years are more annoying than effective, and for that reason may ultimately produce a backlash from ordinary citizens tired of being spied on, hassled, and inconvenienced by security personnel and systems whose purposes and efficacy are not readily apparent.

Consider aviation security, for example. In many respects the new security regime at U.S. airports, which has cost billions of dollars, is designed more to fight the last war than the next one. Not only has it been unevenly implemented – with complaints from women in particular about it being too invasive – but experts say that it is still possible to get weapons on board an aircraft. Many if not quite all of the tests run against the system have been a joke. Most tests of the system at Reagan National Airport, for example, are conducted by TSA (Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS) personnel who dress up in wigs and odd types of clothing in attempts to fool their co-workers.

The ineffectiveness of the system was demonstrated recently by an incident involving a Somali woman, hired by Reagan National Airport and paid by an airline, whose job it is to compare one’s ticket with his or her driver’s license or other identification to ensure that they match. She asked this writer, after examining his Montana driver’s license, if Montana “is part of the United States.”

In some instances, the TSA’s own people are not much better qualified. One of my co-workers was sent to secondary screening because another foreign-born worker said the name on his ticket (which identified him as Tom) did not match the name on his I.D. (which identified him as Thomas).

The real problem in this area, though, is that the whole U.S. aviation-screening process is fundamentally flawed. By subjecting all passengers to roughly the same level of scrutiny – because to do otherwise has been deemed by some policy makers to be discriminatory – the efficacy of the system has been undermined. A “trusted traveler” program, which should have been established years ago, would allow passengers to volunteer certain personal information – including information that could be encoded on a biometric identifier – that would permit them to pass through security more rapidly. Those who do not want to go to the trouble of joining the program – either because they don’t fly that often, or because they object to providing personal data, including biometric information, about themselves – would still have the option of standing in lines and going through the present screening process.

A major advantage of expediting the time it takes for trusted travelers to go through security is that it would provide more time and resources to focus on those travelers who are the most likely to pose a risk to aviation security. There also would be some cost savings, which could, and probably should, be applied to the development of an effective freight-assessment system. The absence of an effective cargo-screening system remains the greatest threat to civil aviation today.

TSA publicly admitted that its CAPPS I (Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System) program fell short of expectations, and then-DHS Secretary Tom Ridge later announced that the Department had abandoned efforts to implement a follow-on CAPPS II system. CAPPS III is unlikely to be much of an improvement until and unless the basic assumptions underlying the program are changed so that the security screening process is focused mostly on the highest-risk group – Middle Eastern males between the ages of 15 and 35 – and not on the general flying public.

There are similar problems in the field of building-access control. An unarmed security guard making $8 to $12 an hour is not going to stop terrorist attacks by checking I.D. cards at the entrances to office buildings, and attempts to do so are simply another financial burden on building owners and tenants. Court TV founder Steve Brill is promoting a universal I.D. card that would permit access to all subscriber buildings and facilities. What could make more sense?

Many people, including this writer, working in the field of homeland security and counter-terrorism think that it is time to require that all American citizens be issued national I.D. cards encoded not only with biometric information but also with technological safeguards and barriers that would thwart attempts at forgery. Such cards – which could include a variety of other information, including a person’s social security number – could not only serve as the backbone of the trusted-traveler program and access-control systems but also would help prevent identity theft and illegal immigration.

Proposals such as the idea to somehow “standardize” state drivers’ licenses as an alternative to the development of a true national I.D. card system should be ignored. It is time to reject halfway measures.

In future issues of T.I.P.S. I plan to focus on topics of special interest to security professionals, as well as policy makers, under the heading “Smart Security.” If there is one consistent theme that will be explored, it is how we – all of us, the American people – can make our nation safer from terrorists and other enemies. And, as a corollary, we will look at some of the smartest solutions that might be implemented to achieve that important goal.

A Note From the Publisher: I am pleased to announce the addition to the T.I.P.S. roster of Neil C. Livingstone, chief executive officer of GlobalOptions Inc., an international crisis-management and risk-solutions firm headquartered in the nation’s capital. An internationally respected lecturer and writer, Dr. Livingstone has authored nine books and more than 180 articles in the fields of terrorism and counterterrorism, national security, and foreign policy, and is a veteran of more than 1,100 television appearances. An Honors graduate of the College of William and Mary, he holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His first article for T.I.P.S., a commentary on current U.S. screening and security systems – and others that perhaps would be more effective.

Martin Masiuk, Publisher

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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