The Flying Elite
2/19/2002 12:00:00 AM - Joel Mowbray
In a move that should not be surprising, but nonetheless is, the
Department of Transportation announced last week that the new
trusted-traveler ID cards would be tested in a pilot program reserved
exclusively for members of Congress.
In legislation passed during the peak of post-9/11 bipartisanship,
Congress authorized DOT to create a program where frequent fliers can
bypass extensive scrutiny in a special "fast lane". The so-called
"fly-D" cards will contain not just a photo but also a fingerprint, and
will only be issued after a criminal background check and a 15-minute
in-person interview with a government official.
Congressmen will no doubt be duly impressed when they breeze through
airport security with a minimum of hassle, while their constituents-the
people they're supposedly serving-wait in sometimes grueling lines.
They will be able to provide testimonial support for the new two-tiered
approach, boosting the likelihood that trusted-traveler cards will reach
But rather than being pleased with going unmolested at airports,
Congressmen should be deeply troubled. Of course a member of Congress
will not hijack or bomb a plane, but what safeguards are in place to
stop a member of a sleeper cell with no criminal history from obtaining
a trusted-traveler ID when the program expands?
At the moment, there are only two protections to prevent sleepers from
using the security fast lane: requiring U.S. citizenship and the
face-to-face interview. The former is not written in stone yet, but it
is tough to imagine a plan garnering political backing if it allows
aliens or residents to enjoy relaxed security. But this is by no means
a complete bar, since al Qaeda has been able to recruit U.S. citizens.
As for the interview process, a quick look at the numbers tells you this
could be a difficult chore to carry out.
If you assume conservatively that there are one million Americans who
fly often enough to warrant getting the special ID, that's 250,000
man-hours if one agent conducts each interview. If there are two people
per session-something that common sense would dictate a reasonable
measure-the government faces a half-million labor-hours, and that's
assuming each interview lasts precisely 15 minutes. The logistics of
pulling together enough highly-trained personnel won't be an easy task.
During a recent conversation with Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), the lead
advocate in the House for the special IDs, he assured me that sleepers
wouldn't get past the interview, the step in the process he dubbed "the
best check". "Take that Mohammed Atta," he said. "An agent would've
been able to detect his robotic stare." When pressed, though, he
conceded that "it's a possibility" that a sleeper not burdened with a
robotic stare could attain a trusted-traveler card.
So if a sleeper has the special ID, he would, by design, saunter
through the airport with less scrutiny than someone without the card.
True, he would have to walk through a metal detector and have his bag
scanned, but he would not be subject to any of the more extensive
measures that have become commonplace in the past few months. Rep.
Culberson maintains that this lower level of inspection is still
adequate, likening it to "security policies that existed before 9/11."
Not terribly reassuring.
In fairness to Rep. Culberson, he is ardently opposed to DOT's plans
to initially allow only 535 beltway politicians to utilize the fast
lanes. "This is not a privileged traveler card, but a trusted traveler
program," he stressed. He promised to exhort DOT to make the trial run
open to military and law enforcement personnel instead. That's a noble
goal, but it doesn't change the fact that there are sleepers who will be
waiting with baited breath for the program's expansion.
Trusted-traveler cards which promise lesser security and shorter lines
will undoubtedly be embraced by the millions of Americans who fly even
somewhat regularly. But there can be no denying that the prospect of
acquiring the ID will hold unparalleled appeal for sleepers who wish to
do us harm.
We mustn't forget that if Richard Reid hadn't been such a ninny, one
more plane could have fallen victim to terrorism. The only reason he
was detected is because he failed on his first attempt to ignite the
fuse to his shoe bomb. Plastic explosives, such as C-4, are not picked
up by a metal detector, the only examination of the person to which
trusted travelers would be subjected. And there have been too many
other post-9/11 incidents where people carrying a whole host of
contraband have gotten past metal detectors and bag scanners.
As tempting as a security fast lane is to frequent fliers, travelers
cannot trust this new system which would prove even more tempting to