Airport Weapons Screening
Reliability: < 5%
Since September 11th, the Transportation Security Administration has spent $12 Billion on aviation security. The vast majority of this money goes toward funding a force of 45,000 airport security screeners who are responsible for using metal detectors, explosives trace detectors and x-ray machines to screen passengers’ and their bags for contraband.
While TSA routinely confiscates hundreds of thousands of contraband items every year, the vast majority of these items are only “technically” illegal, such as scissors, and cigarette lighters, and are carried unwittingly by passengers who are not trying to conceal them. It is much more difficult for screeners to detect a weapon when it is deliberately concealed -- and the record proves it.
Before 9/11, in FAA tests, airport screeners failed to detect deliberately hidden weapons from 66%- 95% of the time. After 9/11, screening failure rates were classified by the government (why would they be classified if they inspired confidence?), but lawmakers given access to the data, and new independent government reports, confirm screening failures are just as high now, as they were before the attacks, for both weapons and explosives.
Presently deployed technology is woefully inadequate for the job. Metal detectors cannot detect an entire class of razor sharp, high-tech composite plastic knives, pepper sprays or clubs. A terrorist could carry a knife with an eight inch composite blade on his person right through the detector and it would have absolutely no chance of detecting it.
X-ray machines are little better. The number of bags transiting screening and the myriad shadows and shapes on each bag viewed from only a single angle, makes it very difficult to identify a weapon among the clutter of gadgets, clothes and personal articles passengers carry. The FBI publishes an entire catalog of undetectable knives, guns and other weapons each year.
Explosives trace detection (swabbing a carryon bag for explosive residue) is much more robust, but is seldom used due to the expense and time-consuming nature of the check. Explosives trace detection cannot detect any weapon but explosives.
“Racial profiling rules” restrict the number of minorities that may be subject to secondary inspection at the same time. If several like minorities arrive at screening simultaneously, they are assured by law that most will not be subject to more than a cursory inspection.
“Behavioral profiling” (observing passengers for autonomic suspicious behavior) shows promise, but is only in the testing stage.
These screening weaknesses make the system very easy to deliberately exploit.
- A retired FAA Security Inspector reported he was able to sneak weapons past security roughly 95% of the time in 2003.
- Two years ago, a college student successfully snuck weapons past security screeners on multiple occasions at multiple airports, successfully hiding them in the lavatories of four or five Southwest Airlines jets to test the system. He was successful every time he tried.
- Richard Reid, the infamous “American Airlines shoe bomber,” snuck his explosive shoes past screening on his original attempt to board the flight, was denied boarding and interrogated by authorities for hours (they didn’t discover the shoes), then returned the next day and snuck his shoes past screening a second time, this time getting onboard. The only reason the passengers and crew on the fateful flight had time to stop Reid as he tried to light the explosives was because Reid’s shoes got wet walking in the rain and the fuse wouldn’t light.
- In Los Angeles, a mental patient passed by screening without a boarding pass, actually getting aboard an airliner without anyone questioning him.
- Two Russian airlines were blown up last year by Chechan terrorists wearing explosive belts. They are suspected of bribing airport screeners to board the targeted flights.
- Hundreds of airports have been evacuated since 9/11 after authorities failed to stop passengers who were either not inspected, or carrying possible contraband. Each evacuation is a tacit admission that screening has failed.
Another potential weakness is in the integrity of airport screeners. While the vast majority of screeners are hard-working, conscientious professionals, a number have been arrested for stealing from passengers’ bags, and one for taking a small bribe to allow illicit drugs onto an airliner.
Given the record of the Transportation Security Administration on airport screening and the poor pace of deployment of more robust technology, a motivated group of terrorists will have little difficulty getting weapons past security screening, particularly at multiple airports simultaneously.
For all of these reasons, the reliability of airport weapons screening in preventing a terrorist hijacking is less than 5%.