Since 9/11, our nation has been obsessed with air-travel security. Terrorist attacks from the air have been the threat that looms largest in Americans' minds. As a result, we've wasted millions on misguided programs to separate the regular travelers from the suspected terrorists -- money that could have been spent to actually make us safer.
Consider CAPPS and its replacement, Secure Flight. These are programs to check travelers against the 30,000 to 40,000 names on the government's No-Fly list, and another 30,000 to 40,000 on its Selectee list.
They're bizarre lists: people -- names and aliases -- who are too dangerous to be allowed to fly under any circumstance, yet so innocent that ...view middle of the document...
(Our report was on the TSA website, but has recently been removed -- "refreshed" is the word the organization used -- and replaced with an "executive summary" (.doc) that contains none of the report's findings. The TSA did retain two (.doc) rebuttals (.doc), which read like products of the same outline and dismiss our findings by saying that we didn't have access to the requisite information.) Our conclusions match those in two (.pdf) reports (.pdf) by the Government Accountability Office and one (.pdf) by the DHS inspector general.
Alongside Secure Flight, the TSA is testing Registered Traveler programs. There are two: one administered by the TSA, and the other a commercial program from Verified Identity Pass called Clear. The basic idea is that you submit your information in advance, and if you're OK -- whatever that means -- you get a card that lets you go through security faster.
Superficially, it all seems to make sense. Why waste precious time making Grandma Miriam from Brooklyn empty her purse when you can search Sharaf, a 26-year-old who arrived last month from Egypt and is traveling without luggage?
The reason is security. These programs are based on the dangerous myth that terrorists match a particular profile and that we can somehow pick terrorists out of a crowd if we only can identify everyone. That's simply not true.
What these programs do is create two different access paths into the airport: high-security and low-security. The intent is to let only good guys take the low-security path and to force bad guys to take the high-security path, but it rarely works out that way. You have to assume that the bad guys will find a way to exploit the low-security path. Why couldn't a terrorist just slip an altimeter-triggered explosive into the baggage of a registered...