Investigate All Air Travelers, Say Experts in Dog Food Rebranding

Washington Post staff writers Anne Kornblut and Ashley Halsey cite “experts” six times in a story today about the nascent pendulum swing in airport security policy back toward government investigation of travelers.

“[M]ore than a dozen U.S. officials, lawmakers and experts interviewed said they would like to move to a system that relies more on passenger data than on airport checkpoint screening,” they write. “[I]f the security system were allowed to access even more — such as personal information collected by companies that do credit ratings — suspicious passengers would be more readily identified, experts say.”

Without irony, they cite these methods as a way of closing gaps in current airport security. But no system would be quite so gapped as a system of mass investigations. As I wrote recently with regard to the “Trusted Traveler” notion, which has the same provenance:

[P]recisely what biographical information assures that a person is “good”? (The proposal is for government action: it would be a violation of due process to keep the criteria secret and an equal protection violation to unfairly divide good and bad.) How do we know a person hasn’t gone bad from the time that their goodness was established?

Kornblut and Halsey have turned up what appears to be a new idea by citing only experts who have not thought through the weaknesses, due process issues, and privacy costs in identity-based security. Mass investigation of air travelers is rebranded dog food. We don’t need to run to the bowl and drive our snouts into it.

Continuing the canine analogy, note how much tail-chasing there is in airport security policy. Kornblut and Halsey write:

[P]assengers must surrender sharp objects (a response to the Sept. 11 attacks) and slip off their shoes (a response to the 2001 would-be shoe bomber). They must remove liquids from their bags (a result of a 2006 plot to blow up planes), and, as of a few weeks ago, they must submit to body scans or pat-downs (a process accelerated by the attempted airline bombing last Christmas Day).

Terrorists can throw new tactics at us endlessly, causing us each time to add billions more in spending and undercut our liberty and prosperity.

The reason for the tail-chasing is the formulation reported in a companion piece to the main story:

“The terrorists just have to get it right once. The people who are trying to stop them can get it right 99.9 percent of the time and then when something happens, people get upset and want to vote out of office the people they hold responsible.”

It’s nice to see this formulation racheted back to where terrorism threatens politicians. In other versions, the success of any attack has been treated as a threat to the whole nation—an “existential” threat, no less. But even as to politicians, it’s not a given of terrorism that “they only have to get it right once.” It’s only true if politicians (lie to us and) promise that terrorists will have zero successes, treating our nation as so fragile and weak that the fragile-America prophecy self-fulfills.

The alternative is to adopt a national mind-set of indomitability rather than fragility. It is risk acceptance when the costs of risk avoidance are too high.

Cato has hosted true experts on terrorism and counterterrorism at two significant conferences, one in January 2009 and another in January 2010. A good framework for re-thinking counterterrorism policy can be found in the Cato book, Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy is Failing and How to Fix It.