“Don’t Touch My Junk.” The anthem of one furious airport passenger has become a rallying cry for airport passengers around the United States.  Who can blame them? As Charles Krauthammer puts it in his recent piece in the Washington Post, at today’s airport screening line “[w]izened seniors strain to untie their shoes; beltless salesmen struggle comically to hold up their pants; 3-year-olds scream while being searched insanely for explosives…”. There must be something wrong when a 15 hour road trip with the entire family seems a more convenient way to get to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving than flying.

To Americans, most of this seems downright wacky and unrelated to their security.  But the debate over junk, scans, and pat-downs is missing a critical line of conservation.  Folks should be asking and TSA should be explaining exactly what security measures actually are necessary and indeed do make passengers safer against terrorism?  While there are undoubtedly some who would favor no security at the airports, it is clear that most Americans support security measures of one form or the other. In fact, in 2008, a study of 2,800 people found that 70% thought that the government was “doing an excellent or good job protecting air travel.”  That’s opposed to 13% who thought the Department of Homeland Security was doing enough to enforce immigration laws (that’s for another blog).

Most law-abiding citizens want to know that there is indeed a method to the madness.  Hello, TSA? Can you hear us?  The right answer should be that TSA will have physical security measures, but they will be used to target passengers on the basis of risk.  Hint to TSA:  not everyone going through security is a risk.   Differentiating between sweet Susie law-abiding citizen and would-be terrorist starts before either of them would ever enter the airport walls.  In fact, previously foiled terrorist attacks have taught us that the best way to stop terrorism is to focus on improving the flow of intelligence between local, state, and federal law enforcement and empowering them to track down terror leads in communities. Additionally, working with our international partners and robust-interagency coordination on visa and intelligence matters is equally vital.  Watchlists like Secure Flight assist TSA in stopping a terrorist from ever getting on a plane, and they don’t involve any kind of awkward pat-down. 

It is equally naïve to think that there would never be a reason to subject passengers to physical screening, or even a full body scan or pat-down at an airport.  Anyone who suggest otherwise would be great to play in a game of poker.  If intelligence leads TSA screeners to believe that a person requires additional review based on credible intelligence—Americans should expect, if not demand that the government pull them aside.  Most of this physical screening has no place, however, in primary inspection lines. Pretending that everyone is a risk is a weak way to do intelligence—the onus is on TSA and DHS as a whole to improve this process.