New Airport Security Measures

Airline Screening Measures

The headlineNew U.S. Airport Security Measures To Use ‘Real-Time’ Intelligence” caused a chuckle when I saw it on the RFE/RL Twitter feed.  Not to overly disparage the TSA’s screeners, intelligence agents they ain’t.  But a description of the program makes it sound like a step in the right direction.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has unveiled new airport security measures for all U.S.-bound flights aimed at catching passengers who might pose a terrorist threat before they board a flight.  In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said the new measures “utilize real-time, threat-based intelligence along with multiple, random layers of security, both seen and unseen, to more effectively mitigate evolving terrorist threats.”

The new measures are the result of a three-month study ordered by U.S. President Barack Obama to determine how security systems failed on December 25, 2009, when a Nigerian man was allowed to board a U.S.-bound plane with explosives under his clothing. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was already on a U.S. watch list and his association with an offshoot of Al-Qaeda was suspected when he boarded a Detroit-bound plane in Amsterdam. But with a crude syringe and explosive powder taped to his leg, he passed easily through metal detectors and security checkpoints.  A snap White House-ordered investigation into what went wrong concluded that there had been information in the intelligence system to have justified keeping him off the flight.


The new procedures do away with mandated extra screening for passengers from 14 mostly Muslim countries — a check put into in place following the botched Christmas Day attack.  Instead, a passenger will undergo extra screening if he or she matches a description provided by intelligence officials of potential terrorists believed to be active at the time.  Homeland Security officials say the new measures are designed to be more flexible and “to reflect the most current information available to the U.S. government.”

The intelligence-based targeting will be in addition to the normal practice of screening passenger’s names for inclusion on terror watch lists.  The government’s “no fly” list of suspected terrorists who are banned from flights to or within the United States has some 6,000 names.

Additional new security measures include the increased use of explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology — including body scanners — canine teams, pat downs, and random screening.

In developing the new security measures, Napolitano said U.S. officials consulted with international counterparts, including those in Israel.

Now, I remain skeptical of all this.  There’s zero evidence that the no-fly lists are particularly useful; they let Abdulmutallab through and cause innocents unfortunate to have a name similar to another Muslim untold grief.    Moreover, I’m highly dubious of the ability of our current screening agents to memorize dozens of faces to keep an eye out for suspected plane bombers.  For that matter, I’m highly dubious of the ability of our counterterrorism folks to identify likely plane bombers.

Nor is there any indication that they’re going to stop harassing obviously innocent people in the name of equal treatment.   The number of times my wife or I — middle aged white folks traveling with an infant — have been subjected to random additional screening is simply absurd.  Even the dumbest TSA agent has to know that we’re not jihadists out to blow up the plane.

All that said, at least there’s an effort being made to move in the direction of keeping potential terrorists off of airplanes rather than focusing entirely on potential weapons.  And it’s long past time to make use of body scanners. But this is praiseworthy only insofar as the current system is preposterous.

FILED UNDER: Intelligence, Science & Technology, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    I agree that body scanners make more sense than metal detectors. I also agree that the idea of the screeners spotting a known bomber is low absent specific information. But facial recognition scanners could add a new element of security. Even if not perfect, they force the enemy to honor the threat. And they are tireless. Biggest issue is the TSA putting half the planet in the system making the scanning of the databse to long to be effective.

  2. steve says:

    Will they be able to stop exploding boobs?


  3. FredW says:

    “The number of times my wife or I — middle aged white folks traveling with an infant — have been subjected to random additional screening is simply absurd. ”

    It sounds like someone in your family has a name that is on a list. They are not allowed to tell you you are on a list, the only way you know is that you are subjected to an absurd amount of additional screening. If it only happens when you fly as a family it may be your infant’s name that triggers the action. Children under 6 years of age are not supposed to trigger searches, but that does not always stop TSA over-achievers.

  4. tom p says:

    The number of times my wife or I — middle aged white folks traveling with an infant — have been subjected to random additional screening is simply absurd. Even the dumbest TSA agent has to know that we’re not jihadists out to blow up the plane.

    Maybe they think you are members of a “patriotic militia”??? (by the by, WTF does that mean?)

    James, you seem to be operating under the delusion that just because you cannot imagine wanting to blow yourself up (and your wife and your infant daughter) in an attempt to make the American infidels suffer for their transgressions, nobody else would either…

    You and I both know better than that (and don’t think the fact that being white, middle aged, and middle class, gets you off the hook boy-o)(some of them are the most whacko types imaginable)(been to a TP rally lately? Sounds a little too much like an AQ press release to me)

    Seriously tho, AQ will use whatever gets thru the lines, no matter how absurd. Just grit your teeth…

    It is our world, now we have to live in it.