TSA-like hotel security is not the answer

TSA-like hotel security is not the answer
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One lone gunman committing an unpredictable, horrific act of mass murder has set off a predictable debate about how government can prevent such an event from “ever happening again.” While the debate escalates over the clamor for the amorphous “common gun sense legislation,” the Las Vegas mass murder starts a subtler debate about hotel security. 

Much like the reflexive, knee-jerk reaction after 9/11 that created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the low key yet equally knee-jerk reaction is how does the hospitality industry prevent a one-off event from ever happening again. While hotels and casinos are indeed soft targets for terrorism, and measures can be taken to prevent attacks similar to the Indonesia's 2003 Jakarta Marriott bombing, the concept of implementing TSA-like procedures at hotels and casinos is impractical, costly and mind-numbingly ill conceived.


Secretary of State Colin Powell and I arrived at the Jakarta Marriott 16 months after a car-bombing. The only visible difference in security were Jersey-barriers preventing automobiles and trucks from approaching close to the hotel entrance. Most American hotels and casinos still have close-in driveways allowing patrons to check-in and drop off luggage with bellmen. While this remains an obvious vulnerability in terms of car-bombings, I’m unaware of any car-bombings of hotels and casinos by deranged madmen. So why would hotels or casinos change the convenient way customers, taxis or limos approach hotel or casino entrances?


Timothy McVey’s 1993 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Building showed the vulnerability of office buildings, government buildings and even hotels to car bombs, yet we only find Jersey-barriers or setbacks at office buildings and government facilities. The hospitality industry has yet to recognize that vulnerability and change the way vehicles approach their properties.


Unless a hotel or casino is undergoing renovation or new construction, why would they go to the extraordinary expense of moving vehicle unloading and drop-off a sufficient distance from the entrance to mitigate against this vulnerability? Because no publicly available intelligence sources indicate that this soft target is on the list of any domestic or foreign terrorist organization.

Likewise, the Las Vegas gunman provides no similar indication this vulnerability of customer drop-offs is on the list of any terrorist organization. Spending capital on mitigating against this vulnerability (absent any indication it is a target) is a waste of money and only increases hotel and casino costs without any discernible benefit. Those costs will ultimately be borne by hotel and casino customers and I find no indication of a willingness to pay extra for those costs.

Who pays for the additional personnel and equipment to conduct such an intrusive security screening at a hotel or casino? Where do the hotels and casinos find the necessary personnel to conduct such searches? Who pays for the training of that personnel to use magnetometers? Who trains personnel to be sensitive to searching luggage in a public venue? All of those costs are ultimately borne by the guests. The family vacation just became more expensive with minimal, if any, increased security. But most importantly, why would anyone endure that type of intrusive screening at a hotel or casino based on one outlier event?

Before we continue down the route we’re on of an ever-increasing security state, both citizens and politicians need to become better at assessing risk and narrowly but effectively mitigating against that security risk. The predictable knee-jerk reaction of asking government to “do something” doesn’t necessarily reduce risk — and, it comes with innumerable unintended consequences, including the most important of all, increased loss of liberty.

For those who have never been to Las Vegas let me describe the logistical nightmare of TSA-like screening. Many casinos are interconnected by walkways, shopping malls, numerous entrances at street level and otherwise. Are casinos and hotels now expected to screen even non-hotel guests entering their property simply to shop in their shops, or gamble in their casinos? 

Those discussing this type of hyper-overreaction to a horrifying — yet single — event, poison the public mind with the idea that not only “something must be done” but that “something” has any efficacy at all. And I haven’t even started describing the vulnerability of employee entrances, floaters and other entrances that would require additional screening. 

After 9/11 those of us involved in the White House discussions about “what was coming next” were flying blind, relying upon the intelligence community to deliver actionable intelligence upon which we could develop strategies and public policies to prepare for another attack. But even with input from the intelligence community, we were still operating with blinders because flying airplanes as weapons into buildings was an outlier. It had not happened before. That mentality that we must be seen as doing something, resulted in a re-shuffling of disparate agencies and missions into the convoluted monstrosity we call the Department of Homeland Security.

Yet the simplest, most effective security measures against that happening again were two very obvious measures to anyone outside the echo chamber of showing the public we were doing “something.” First, the realization by passengers that the end game of a hijacking was not a trip to Havana, but perhaps death by flying into a building. No longer would passengers sit passively while someone tried to hijack a commercial airliner. Terrorists could no longer count on a passive group of passengers. The second and equally effective security measure no seems obvious — securing the cockpit doors. Those two simple measures have done more to prevent another 9/11 attack than all the TSA agents and behavior detection officers, or groping of our grandmothers than anything else.

Let’s stop the clamoring that something must be done, and in particular that government be seen as doing something, anything, regardless of how ineffective that “something” might be. Instead, let’s make rational decisions about security based upon legitimate, fact-based risk assessment. And let’s not allow one crazed individual further restrict freedom of movement of ordinary citizens.

Michael D. Brown served as general counsel, deputy director, director of FEMA and as under secretary of Homeland Security for President George W. Bush from 2001-2005. He is the author of “Deadly Indifference – The Perfect [Political] Storm.”