Airport Security: Winging It

Posted: Jul 15, 2006 12:00 AM
Some stories aren’t true, but ought to be.

On July 5 the media reported that a special CIA unit set up 10 years ago to hunt down Osama bin Laden had been disbanded. But President Bush says that’s wrong. “It’s just an incorrect story. We have a lot of assets looking for Osama bin Laden,” Mr. Bush announced on July 7.

But if this unit hasn’t been shut down, it’s fair to ask, “Why not?”

The CIA’s been looking for bin Laden for a decade and hasn’t been able to take him out. The closest it came was eight years ago. During the heart of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, President Clinton ordered a series of attacks on sites linked to bin Laden in Afghanistan. That attack failed to kill bin Laden, and we haven’t been able to track him down since. That’s a pretty long losing streak.

Michael Scheuer, the man who founded the bin Laden unit, is now “a trenchant critic of America’s counter-terrorist strategy,” according to the London Telegraph. One can’t help thinking that if only the CIA group Scheuer started had been as “trenchant,” it would have taken out Osama years ago. We must keep hunting for bin Laden, but maybe it’s time to give another group a chance.

At the Navy memorial in Washington there’s a plaque that says “failure is not an option.” Sadly, in today’s federal bureaucracy the motto seems to be, “punishment for failure is not an option.” And that’s true not only at the CIA, but at other agencies that are supposed to protect us.

Consider everybody’s favorite, the Transportation Security Administration.

TSA was born out of failure. After the federal government dropped the ball on 9/11, the answer was clear: Federalize airport security! Airports got an influx of new federal employees and air travelers found themselves subject to a series of rules they couldn’t understand.

“Airport security is an increasingly sad joke,” as Peggy Noonan wrote in The Wall Street Journal in February. “TSA itself often appears to have forgotten its mission, if it ever knew it, and taken on a new one -- the ritual abuse of passengers.”

For example, on its Web site TSA announces, “You are NOT REQUIRED to remove your shoes before you enter the walk-through metal detector.” Really? Ask anyone who’s flown recently.

“The shoe policy is among the most egregious of the inconsistencies of the airport security line and deviates wildly, almost randomly, from airport to airport,” retired pilot James G. George told The Washington Post in 2004. And that’s the problem -- nobody knows what to expect, and TSA isn’t telling travelers what they’re expected to do. That breeds a confrontational atmosphere.

During a recent trip through Philadelphia, I was stopped at the metal detector and sent back to remove my shoes. Meanwhile, my children were allowed to sail through. While my wife was scrambling to catch up to the kids, she tossed her bag onto the conveyer belt in front of the X-ray machine.

“Come back here,” hollered a TSA agent. “You almost hit me with that bag.” That wasn’t true, but suddenly we were both cowering in fear. Here was a woman with the power to keep us off this flight, and maybe even to put us on a no-fly list, if she claimed we’d been attempting to hurt her. Luckily, after some tense moments she allowed us to pass.

None of this was necessary. Our family had already cleared security in the United Kingdom. We were just trying to make our way through a confusing and antagonistic process. And that’s what’s sad -- getting through security shouldn’t be a battle. Travelers and TSA agents have plenty of common ground.

TSA agents don’t want any planes to blow up. Travelers don’t want any planes to blow up. TSA agents don’t want any weapons on the planes. Travelers don’t want weapons on the planes. We’re all on the same page. If they’d simply be clear about what they expect, travelers would be happy to give it to them.

The government is great at making rules. Cabin crews prowl flights ensuring tray tables are in their “upright and locked positions,” seat backs up and seat belts are “securely fastened.” Even if the plane hasn’t moved in half an hour, pilots are apt to insist it’s “on an active runway” so travelers must remain seated. And everyone knows by now that “it is a violation of federal law,” to smoke on a plane or to disable, tamper with or destroy a lavatory’s smoke detector.

We don’t need more laws or more bureaucrats to keep us safe -- just more common sense. We could start by holding federal bureaucracies responsible and punishing them if they fail. That shouldn’t be too much to ask.