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Has Airport Secruity Improved Since 9/11 or Not?

ByABC News
October 31, 2006, 11:57 AM

Oct.31, 2006— -- The story broke Oct. 27, when the Newark Star-Ledger ran a story about its own local airport's reportedly dismal performance in the face of security "testing" by the Transportation Security Administration's internal "Red Team" agents.

According to the report, the TSA screeners at Newark Liberty International Airport failed to detect contraband items 20 out of 22 times, and with Newark being one of the big three airports serving New York City, the story quickly went national.

The failures were not just local failures. They represented the TSA's vulnerability to similar Red Team tests across the nation, tests in which agents try to smuggle fake guns, knives and other prohibited objects past their own screeners to see how well the checkpoints are working.

When a TSA screening team flunks such tests, that failure is supposed to prompt immediate correction through both retraining of the people and improvement of the process. Failed tests mean that TSA's local screening is not perfect. But failed tests do not mean that TSA's screening system is failing, or even in deep trouble.

What everyone missed in the first few days after the story broke was the fact that the TSA system of federalized screeners set up following 9/11 was never expected to be a perfect barrier filtering out 100 percent of all the contraband we don't want near commercial aircraft.

We could try to do that, of course. The country could build a different version of the TSA screening system that would absolutely find 100 percent of the contraband 100 percent of the time, just like Israel's state airline, El Al, has done for decades on a much smaller scale.

But even before 9/11, most of us who watch and analyze this great airline system were warning that to ever impose El Al style security on the U.S. airline system would have a dramatic negative impact on our freedom to move around our own nation, severely cutting the number of flights that TSA could manage in a given day, especially with the number of TSA employees naively capped by Congress at a maximum of 43,000.

Even if TSA had 200,000 employees doing the screening, there is virtually no realistic way they could impose an airtight El Al style security system across the entire United States. An airtight system requires individual passenger profiling and background checking along with intense personal interviews required for virtually every passenger.

Enough, in other words, to bring our system to a universal state of bankruptcy and shutdown, serving our enemy's purposes well in the process.But does that mean we should accept less-than-perfect performance from TSA, and thus tolerate what seems to some to be compromised security on our airliners?

Actually, yes, it does, and it may be a shocking reality, but even though the system is not going to catch every knife and pass every test, it's still OK, very safe, and performing pretty much as designed. How can that be? Because our public perception that TSA screening should be an impenetrable barrier has always been wrong. The TSA screening system was designed to effectively minimize the risk of terrorism on commercial flights, not completely eliminate it.

First it's important to remember what the TSA force replaced: a system of private screeners poorly managed and trained by security companies whose bewildered minimum-wage employees had essentially no hope of deterring any organized attempt to smuggle in dangerous items.

The inescapable proof of this was Muhammed Atta and his murderous henchmen sailing through the checkpoints of three airports without challenge on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, their razor-sharp box cutters openly going through.

That wasn't a failure of the individual companies that were pretending to provide security. It was the failure of a rotten system that had been perfectly constructed to provide the illusion of security while permitting the airlines to get by complying with only the Federal Aviation Administration minimums.

It was a fraud on the American public inadvertently triggered by a disastrous FAA decision in the late 1960s to force the airlines instead of the government to pay for screening out potential hijackers who wanted to go to Cuba.