A Smart, New Airline Security Policy -- Really!

Readers of The Atlantic will appreciate our obsession with security theater, as most memorably demonstrated by Jeffrey Goldberg's regular attempts to get arrested for showing TSA representatives Hezbollah flags, among other things.  There is no TSA director -- Obama's two nominees have withdrawn for a variety of reasons. And it's hardly that a day doesn't go by without some seeming bungle or another. Harry Shearer's Le Show is a great repository of incidents and anecdotes. But a new classified policy that airlines will begin to implement today is a step in the direction of sanity and safety.

After the Christmas Day bombings, President Obama ordered a bow to stern review of TSA and airline screening procedures.

On January 4, the TSA issued an emergency order, classified, that subjected virtually every passenger from 14 countries to secondary screening of some kind. The new policy, for the first time, makes use of actual, vetted intelligence. In addition to the existing names on the "No Fly" and "Selectee" lists, the government will now provide unclassified descriptive information to domestic and international airlines and to foreign governments on a near-real time basis.

This means, to make up an example, that if the National Security Agency picks up chatter that a young man from Yemen who has traveled recently through France plans to crash an airliner, that information, properly vetted and sourced, would be passed along. And individuals who fit that particular category -- young men from Yemen who've traveled recently through France -- will be subject to any number of secondary security checks, ranging from full-body scans to physical pat-downs (that might have caught the Christmas Day bomber) to a few individual questions.

The Jan 4. directive was a blanket: this new directive, which is technically a classified amendment to an existing emergency directive, is a filter. The government reserves the right to expand and contract and refine the filter on a daily basis.  As trust is critical to security, trust remains the biggest potential area of weakness: enforcement is largely up to entities that the U.S. does not control, including foreign governments and airline carriers owned by private citizens.  The U.S. government has ways of covertly monitoring compliance, and there are many more TSA representatives oversees now than ever before. But it is, of course, in the interest of every country who does business with the U.S. and every airline who wants to fly to the U.S. to establish protocols.   The Israeli airline, El Al, uses a similar threat matrix to screen its passengers, but it also has the luxury of being able to strictly monitor how its employees (and Israeli government agents) do their jobs.

Is this profiling? Depends on your definition. I'd say if it is profiling, it's the right kind of profiling because it will be based on intelligence, not prejudice (although intelligence sometimes falls victim to prejudice -- that's a topic for a different day), and the inconvenience will be modest -- much more modest than it is now. Administration officials would not disclose details about the directive, nor would they provide information about the threshold level of specificity needed to generate the extracts that would be sent abroad. An inter-agency team, including representatives from the Director of National Intelligence's Counterterrorism Center and FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, will determine, on any given day, what (if any) threat information needs to be sent out.

Will this get every bad guy? No. In Donald Rumsfeld's parlance, it will do a better job of getting the known unknowns, but the unknown unknowns will have to be caught by the rest of the security system, which is sophisticated in some areas and spotty in others, and relies heavily on deterrence.