Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Air Security Follies and the Death of Innocence

Airport security is nothing if not a rich pageant and an endless source of amusement. Yesterday, I saw none other than Tweety Bird pass through the TSA checkpoint at Reagan National Airport. I am not joking (so far).

From my vantage some distance behind her in line, I couldn’t quite see the entire process, but I did see that she was sent to secondary search — perhaps for lack of ID, perhaps because the magnetometer suggested her bulbous, yellow head was full of daggers and C-4. She opted for secondary in a side-room, away from public view.

When I got to the front of the line, I managed to quiz the TSA ID-checker about whether Ms. Bird had presented government-issued ID. She had not.

But I had seen Tweety emerge from secondary in just a few short minutes. This does not square with the new procedure whereby people without ID are subject to dossier review against TSA’s public records databases, a time-consuming process by all reports.

One of two possibilities presented itself:

It may be that the new dossier-check policy does not apply to birds. After all, birds are likely to have exceedingly thin files. They have no Social Security Numbers — not yet, anyway — and little access to the financial services that would form the basis of a credit file. Only a few birds own vehicles or property (the emancipated pets of deceased, eccentric millionaires). So, perhaps, for lack of records about them, birds have of necessity been made exempt.

But this would open a gaping hole in our air security system. Al Qaeda would have to do nothing more than recruit birds to carry out attacks on air transportation. They wouldn’t even have to be “clean-skin” birds with no history of terrorism (or “clean-feathers,” I suppose). Birds that we knew to be associated with the bombing of the USS Cole, for example, (waterfowl, one assumes) would easily be able to access air transportation for lack of a check of their IDs against the terrorist watch-list at the airport.

Putting a bird on a plane to attack us — how diabolically, ingeniously ironic. Have we no defense against it?

Though I’ve been disappointed before — like, with the entire concept of watch-listing — I can’t believe that the DHS and TSA would leave open such a vulnerability.

My second theory is more plausible, though I was somewhat gut-wrenched when it occured to me, and still am.

Our memory of life scrolls out behind us like a fabric, ornamented by moments, inflection points, of two kinds: the times when change comes, and the times when we realize it has come.

On one day, a child’s mother does not meet her at the schoolbus, and a change has come. She looks down the street. A best friend says to a best friend, “See ya’ later,” and it’s for the last time. Your first true love didn’t understand you and never will.

The second moment, the recognition, may take decades. You’re alone in the world, child. The best friend simply left. There’s no crescendo. Four days after my mother passed, I awoke in the black pre-dawn, and the tears flowed.

The TSA guy said something that I didn’t understand: “It’s their policy not to take the head off.”

“It’s their policy not to take the head off.” What could that possibly mean?

And then, like flu, revelation.

I think that maybe Tweety Bird was actually a human person in a Tweety Bird costume. The TSA guy may have allowed the person through the normal ID checkpoint, and in the seclusion of the secondary search room the person in the Tweety Bird costume took off the head, showed his or her ID, and got a pat-down search and wanding of the big yellow feet.

So I guess they will improvise for people in gigantic costumes at the checkpoint. I wonder if people dressed as, say, The Incredible Hulk get the same treatment as classic Warner Brothers characters.

But I still feel like I lost something in airport security yesterday. Tweety Bird isn’t real.

Oh, and also, I noticed that they’re not requiring participants in the Clear card Registered Traveler program to also show government-issued ID. That is (or was) a policy that was perfectly incoherent because the Clear card is a biometric proof of the ID the person used to join Registered Traveler. I’ll be checking to see if they’ve dispensed with the double-ID requirement nationally or just at DCA.

Building Afghanistan

Building a state in Afghanistan is the job of the Afghans. The United States can help, especially with infrastructure projects and military training, but our principle objective there should not be counter-insurgency, but counter-terrorism. That mission requires no surge in American or NATO forces.

Don’t take it from me, take it from Rory Stewart, the crazy Scotsman and former employee of the British Foreign Office, who walked across Afghanistan in 2002 with a dog, lived to write a great book about it, and now lives in Kabul.

Stewart’s article is latest in an outbreak of Afghanistan surge skepticism.

Crime vs. Terrorism in Providence

The New York Times reports that Providence’s police would prefer to spend their federal grants on crime rather than terrorism. That is because there is crime in Rhode Island but no terrorism.

This conflict is national, as I discussed here. Because our domestic counter-terrorism bureaucracy is largely our crime-fighting bureaucracy, the more you chase terrorists, the less you chase criminals. Some of the counter-terrorism money is new, but much of it comes by cutting back on other things. The FBI only has so many agents and the Justice Department so much grant money. Police officers only have so much time.

The result is pressure to divert counter-terrorism resources to crime-fighting. There are not enough terrorists to go around, so terrorist fusion centers become all-hazards fusion centers. Police departments try to use counter-terrorism funding to buy things - like police cars - that aid their actual work. Scandals about misused homeland security funds follow. But maybe the misallocating police had a better grasp on local risks than the grant-giving feds.

This was all summarized by the Wire. Early on, Detective McNulty struggles to interest the FBI in his investigation of Baltimore drug dealers, going so far as to call them terrorists to try to meet FBI criteria. Later, as a beat cop, he complains about the uselessness of a counter-terrorism course but uses notebooks they give him there for his kids’ school supplies.

Losing Elections, Losing Wars

Senator John McCain’s advisers evidently told him to crank up the rhetoric a bit yesterday, because his longstanding stump speech line about “rather lose an election than lose a war” became this:

When we adopted the surge, we were losing the war in Iraq, and I stood up and said I would rather lose a campaign than lose a war. Apparently Sen. Obama, who does not understand what’s happening in Iraq or fails to acknowledge the success in Iraq, would rather lose a war than lose a campaign.

There’s something strange about the logic of that statement. McCain’s implying that “losing” the war will win Obama the election — that the American people want to “lose.”

And, it turns out, by McCain’s definition of losing, he’s correct. A Rasmussen/FOX survey reports today that 63% of Americans want troops home from Iraq within one year:

Twenty-four percent (24%) would like to see the troops brought home immediately while 39% say they should be brought home at some point within a year.

Terrorist Attacks on Aviation - 11 Per Day!

… or so you would infer from a statistic reported on the Threat Level blog.

Threat Level reports on a new policy that has the Transportation Security Administration doing deep dives into people’s public-record dossiers when they arrive at airports without government-issued ID: “The new rules went into effect June 21, and in the first five days, 1705 people out of 10 million attempted to fly without identification and 59 of those were denied access to the plane.”

Fifty-nine refuseniks in five days works out to more than 11 terrorist attacks thwarted per day.

Of course, these weren’t actually terrorists. These were people whose papers weren’t in order. When this happens, TSA employees at its operations center in Virginia dig into public records databases and relay questions to screeners at the airports. If a traveler passes the test, he or she can fly. If the database information is wrong, or if the traveler is forgetful, he or she is stranded.

We were already quite a long way from getting any actual security benefit out of these programs, but as Threat Level suggests, all one need do to impersonate another is memorize the information about them in public records. I think this will happen most often among siblings and family members, who already know such info. But we’re talking about public records. They are collected, packaged, and sold by services like Lexis-Nexis. Sophisticated criminals and terrorists could get them just like anyone else.

Or they could present government-issued ID, having adopted the “clean-skin terrorist” technique that was recently reported to Capitol Hill by DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff.