A better security alternative to airport full-body scanners

One homeland security item that jumps out in the president’s 2011 budget is $700 million to buy an additional 1,000 full-body scanners for airports. The scanners will help for now, but it’s only a matter of time before a terrorist comes up with a way to get around them. A cheaper and more effective alternative exists — smart screening.

First, we have to understand the failings of the system. Following the Christmas bombing attempt, the intelligence community came under fire for failing to “connect the dots.” But that’s not right — there weren’t any dots to connect.

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“Signs,” not “dots,” existed that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab could pose a threat to American citizens. Signs are vague indicators of danger based on sources of unknown credibility, while dots are corroborated pieces of intelligence.

Think Abdulmutallab’s father’s visit to the U.S. embassy was a dot? Wrong — it was a sign. That’s because “walk-in” informants are nearly always non-credible sources of intelligence. Why? There are hundreds upon hundreds of walk-ins to American embassies every day. More than 99 percent are lying.

Then there was the NSA intercept about the Yemen-based al Qaeda affiliate using a “Nigerian” in an unspecified attack. Dot? Nope. Sign? Yes — but still a very vague one. Without specific details like the alleged attacker’s name, location or itinerary, there’s little an analyst can do.

The bottom line? There is not an analyst within the intelligence community who would have read these reports of unconfirmed credibility and concluded that Abdulmutallab was an urgent priority.

Instead, it’s time to construct a security net that accounts for signs of potentially dangerous passengers while balancing risk, passenger inconvenience and privacy concerns — and saves money in the process. Instead of body-scanners, the TSA and National Counterterrorism Center should review one of the least discussed but potentially most effective devices it already has on the books: the “selectee” list.

This differs from the 4,000-person “no fly” list, whose members are permanently barred from flying. The selectee list can fly, but only after additional on-site screening. The problem is that the screening generated by the selectee list is inefficient — the entry “Elizabeth Kennedy” gets them all searched every time.

It’s time to let the selectee list think for itself. With technological innovation, the list could be transformed into a “smart” anti-terrorism tool: Additional screening should be triggered only when an algorithm connects suspicious persons to a specific itinerary during periods of elevated, if vague, threats. For example, if an allegedly dangerous Elizabeth Kennedy is set to travel from Dublin to the U.S., her profile would trigger additional screening only when the smart list automatically connects her name and itinerary to an ongoing Ireland-based threat.

America’s security apparatus can’t become airtight against vague and unsubstantiated threats. But when compared to the expense, invasive delay, and certain obsolescence of a full-body scanner, the “smart selectee list” is a winner. It costs less, protects privacy concerns, and reduces security wait-times by eliminating needless searches.

From Jim Arkedis, director, Progressive Policy Institute’s National Security Project; Department of Defense counterterrorism analyst, 2002-’07, Washington

Inconsistency in black and white

I don’t get the Tea Party movement. They say they want their government back. Back from what? A strong defense, good monetary policy, the right to privacy and the right to a lawyer — all good and basic things, which they had none of with the past administration, and yet, no complaints.

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The past president suspended the right to privacy with the Patriot Act. Started two wars against an enemy of about 100 with no country, costing billions and too many lives. Drove the economy to near depression, then gave banks billions, the very same banks that took us to the brink, with no requirement to tell us, the people, what they did with the money.

It looks like the reason the Tea Party members want our country back from the president is as clear as black and white.

From Norm Grudman, Delray Beach, Fla.