After Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day, the Transportation Security Administration issued a directive requiring airlines to immediately make major changes in their operations.
Travel bloggers Christopher Elliott and Steve Frischling published the directive. On December 29, both were served with subpoenas demanding the surrender by December 31 of all private records that might reveal the identity of the source. Frischling surrendered his computer to federal agents on December 30. Predictably, they destroyed it rather than return it. Elliott contested the subpoena and TSA withdrew them on December 31.
Whether TSA’s actions were legal (or should have been illegal) is an interesting question. What is more immediately interesting is that the directive itself implies a higher concern about the appearance of safety than safety itself. Nothing in the directive would have prevented Abdulmutallab from bombing Flight 253 or prevent a similarly equipped terrorist from blowing up an airliner tomorrow.
The Christmas Day directive required airlines to “ensure that the following procedures are followed” at the boarding gate:a
- The aircraft operator or authorized air carrier representative must ensure all passengers are screened at the boarding gate during the boarding process using the following procedures. These procedures are in addition to the screening of all passengers at the screening checkpoint [operated by TSA].
- Perform thorough pat-down of all passengers at boarding gate prior to boarding, concentrating on upper legs and torso.
- Physically inspect 100 percent of all passenger accessible property at the boarding gate prior to boarding, with focus on syringes being transported along with powders and/or liquids
- Ensure the liquids, aerosols, and gels restrictions are strictly adhered to in accordance with SD 1544-06-02E.
None of these actions would have detected the explosive pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) that Abdulmutallab hid inside his underwear, not on his upper legs or torso. Richard Reid used his shoes, and other suicide bombers have used innovative ways to hide explosives that only a body cavity search would reveal.
The directive also required airlines to “ensure that the following procedures are followed” during flight:
- Passengers must remain in seats beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination.
- Passenger access to carry-on baggage is prohibited beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination.
- Disable aircraft-integrated passenger communications systems and services (phone, internet access services, live television programming, global positioning systems) prior to boarding and during all phases of flight.
- While over U.S. airspace, flight crew may not make any announcement to passengers concerning flight path or position over cities or landmarks.
- Passengers may not have any blankets, pillows, or personal belongings on the lap beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination.
It is theoretically possible that restriction # 5 could have prevented Abdulmutallab from attempting to detonate. The restriction would have had to be put in place immediately before his flight. Knowledge of the new restriction would have taken little time to learn; non-terrorist passengers learned it within one day. And it is an easy restriction to evade. such as by detonating more than one hour before arrival. (Travel writer Jared Blank has helpfully written the directive for TSA, in the form of a press release.)
These security changes, both at the boarding gate any in flight, do not enhance protection from suicide bombers. They impose burdens on the traveling public. Imposing burdens can improve the perception of security, but only insofar as travelers perceive these burdens — even if incorrectly — as logically related to security.
TSA’s credibility seems to be severely damaged by this. Public reaction to the restrictions has been extremely negative because travelers do not believe that they have a bona fide security rationale. The disclosure of the directive gives the game away: TSA is grasping at straws because it does not know how to protect aircraft from suicide bombers.
Epilogue: Was the Christmas Day directive genuinely “Sensitive Security Information”?
This seems unlikely. “Sensitive Security Information” (SSI) is defined by TSA in 49 CFR 1520.5. In subparagraph (8), anything that TSA labels a “security measure” automatically qualifies as SSI. Thus, the Christmas Day directive is SSI because TSA labeled it a security measure, not because it contains anything warranting protection.
What’s genuinely sensitive about this directive, and why TSA ought to be upset about its disclosure, is that it reveals the agency’s superciliousness.