As most of us have experienced the opportunity to experience air travel since the attacks on 9-11, and those of us who experience air travel frequently invariably have heard conversations concerning the effectiveness of the screenings at the airports. Recent news reports even indicate that the effectiveness of bomb screenings leave much to be desired as fake bombs have been successfully passed through the screeners. While the equipment certainly is not to be blamed for the failure to detect them, the obvious fault is placed on the screeners. While my purpose is not to propose that the screeners are perfect, or even that they are as effective as they should be, we must all realize that screeners are but one aspect of a layered security process at the airports that is an effective deterrent against another event like 9-11.
Screenings at the airports present several obstacles which an adversary must consider. First, let me offer the â€œtestingâ€ of screeners by using fake bombs only demonstrate that devices can be passed by persons who demonstrate no threat to the airline industry or air passengers. Just as these types of â€œtestsâ€ show there are weaknesses, they cannot accurately capture the levels of heightened sensitivities of an adversary intent on passing a real explosive device. The true assessment of the effectiveness of the screenings can only be measured in the number of real devices passed through the screenings processes and in the actual number of attacks that have occurred since 9-11.
To prove the effectiveness of screenings, we must look at the processes and countermeasures implemented at the airports from the perspective of the adversary. During any surveillance activities at virtually every airport in the United States, an adversary will see increased stand-off distances from key points, such as towers, aircraft ramps and fuel points. Drop-off and pick-up points for passengers may present an opportunity for an attack, yet even there the potential for police or security personnel have increased. In many airports, vehicles are warned against stopping for much more than seconds. While a car bombing at those locations is one potential scenario, the operational pay-off for a terrorist organization would be minimal, mainly serving as news coverage only with little other impact.
Surveillance activities within the airport will also show a large number of uniformed TSA and police officers who sole purpose is to identify and respond to suspicious activities. Just the presence of the uniform sends a powerful message which is again heightened by the fact that the individual is engaging in an operational activity that is continually being observed by someone. The adversary conducting surveillance will try to blend in to the environment but he or she will always assume there is counter-surveillance. These beliefs that they are being watched by the U.S. law enforcement apparatus only adds to the effectiveness of the other layers of the security program.
Upon reaching the screeners, the lines, identification check and X-ray machines again add to the belief that apprehension is potentially only seconds away. While pre-operational activities and dry runs by a terrorist group may be successful in passing a â€œtestâ€ item through the process, there will always be a concern that the real operation may be unsuccessful. After passing through the screening, there is a continued presence of TSA personnel as well as domes which an adversary must assume are being watched continually.
The steps taken to just get to board the airplane present several psychological obstacles for an adversary. The testing of these systems and screeners can never fully replicate the feelings and sensitivities of a real attack because it is our own security apparatus that is conducting the tests with no chance of being incarcerated, or worse yet, not being able to accomplish their mission. Imagine being the lone driver in the high-occupancy vehicle lane with nothing by police vehicles behind you. The event may be tested, but the feelings cannot be tested with the same degree of certainty.
The layering of the screening process is not perfect by any means. However, I offer that casual conversations from fellow air travelers, who believe they could bypass the screenings because the screeners donâ€™t pay enough attention, look unprofessional or any other layman observation should cause reason for reconsideration because it is easy to assume you would not be caught when it is only a â€œtestâ€.
The effects of media releases on the success rates of screenings only serve to be counterproductive as well. The general population has formed their opinion of the effectiveness of the screenings at the airports but the releasing the results of internal evaluations by TSA can only offer our adversary an glimmer of hope. I only hope that the terrorist evaluating an airport that I am flying through recognizes that there is a process, the screeners are trained, and there are many eyes watching from all over.