The Flying Elite

Posted: Feb 19, 2002 12:00 AM
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 the masses. 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 sleeper terrorists.