Airline Safety: An Exercise in ‘Layered Security’

BY Chris Amico  December 30, 2009 at 5:00 PM EDT

The means and methodology of the Transportation Security Administration are under close review this week in the aftermath of an attempted attack on an airliner bound for Detroit. Among the techniques the TSA employs: something called “layered security.” In a GAO report dated Feb. 6, the agency told investigators that “each individual layer is capable of stopping a terrorist attack, and in combination, their security value is multiplied, creating a stronger security system.”

Security layers graphic

Layers range from intelligence to airport checkpoints to hardened cockpit doors and passengers who now know (after the Sept. 11 attacks) to resist hijackings.

Yet Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused of trying to detonate an explosive on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day, appears to have bypassed all of these layers except his fellow passengers.

Much has been made of [newer scanning technology](http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/12/27/us/terror-graphic.html) that might have spotted the improvised explosive Abdulmutallab concealed under his clothes. Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff [told the New York Times](http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/29/us/29screening.html?pagewanted=2&_r=2&hp) this week that TSA had started purchasing a new generation of whole-body scanners that can see beneath clothing but their deployment was slowed by privacy concerns. However, TSA has been slow to implement such technologies, some government investigators have found. TSA and [Homeland Security](http://www.dhs.gov/index.shtm) have invested more than $795 million since 2002 in technologies to screen passengers as they pass through airport security, according to a [GAO report](http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d10128.pdf) published in October. “Since TSA’s creation, 10 passenger screening technologies have been in various phases of research, development, test and evaluation, procurement, and deployment, but TSA has not deployed any of these technologies to airports nationwide.” Those include: – an explosive trace portal, a walk-through device that blows air on a passenger and sniffs it for explosive residue;
- Whole body imaging, essentially a large scanner that can see through clothing;
- a handheld bottled liquids scanner;
- a shoe-scanning device;
- advanced X-ray systems, aimed at luggage;
- a cast and prosthesis scanner;
- an automated explosives detection system for baggage;
- a boarding pass scanning system, expected to verify the authenticity of a boarding pass at the checkpoint and enable the use of paperless boarding passes by the airlines;
- an automated system for authenticating passengers’ and airport employees’ identification But new screening technology might not be the answer, says [Bruce Schneier](http://www.schneier.com/blog/), a security expert who has [been critical](http://jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/12/bruce_schneier_on_the.php) of what he calls “security theater.” He argues the most visible and expensive security efforts are largely a waste. “The Christmas bomber chose his tactic because we weren’t looking for it. By definition, we wouldn’t have been able to find him through screening,” Schneier said in a phone interview with The Rundown. “This wasn’t a TSA failure. It was the State Department giving him the visa.” So what does help thwart terrorists? Investigation and intelligence work, according to Schneier. No-fly lists catch innocent people, he says. Instead, the government needs a “to-investigate” list, where people are checked, then either arrested or cleared. President Barack [Obama has ordered](http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/terrorism/july-dec09/airport1_12-28.html) a review of airline security and Congress [plans to hold hearings](http://thehill.com/homenews/house/73637-congressional-hearings-called-in-attempted-airline-bombing) as well. Meanwhile, Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., [told the CBS Early Show][cbs] that airports need more, better technology, and said the U.S. should be “forward-leaning.” [cbs]: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=6033409n&tag=contentMain;contentBody