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The TSA Does Not Get It Completely Wrong

Many homeland security experts preach against the approach to airport security taken by the TSA. The TSA’s mitigation efforts focus primarily on specific tactics that terrorists may use, rather than on more generalized, more effective, measures, such as intelligence. Airline security, according to the ones opposing the TSA’s acts, shall be in effect long before the terrorist reaches the airport. All existing mechanisms, such as scanning shoes, banning liquids, etc., are a waste of time and money and punish only the innocent.

I generally agree, but I do so with mixed emotions.

On one hand, I agree that efforts which are tailored against particular tactics and that are moot against other tactics, are probably not the best use of most of security money. Money that is spent on intelligence may prevent an act of terrorism regardless of the shape it ends up taking. Notwithstanding, I refuse to see the tactics-based countermeasures as a complete waste of money. Focusing on countermeasures against specific tactics is a bad practice, indeed. Yet, without these countermeasures, the more strategic measures are less effective. Following is my explanation:

As we leave the tactics zone and shift into the strategy zone (e.g., intelligence), we can uncover and mitigate terrorist acts that utilize diverse tactics, some of which are tactics that we are not even aware of, and thus cannot mitigate on the tactics-level. However, the footprints in the strategy zone are much more vague and difficult to spot. Intelligence has strong potential, but is extremely hard to do and never gives even close-to-complete coverage. As powerful as your intelligence agencies may be, you will never be able to spot each and every couple of terrorists planning a plot. Also, here is yet another factor to consider: your intelligence is mostly based on acts that the terrorist does: stuff he buys, people he talks to, places he goes to, etc. Mind-work alone is yet undetectable. The effectivity of your intelligence, and strategy-level efforts, thus depend on the level of activity (of all sorts) that the terrorist engages in. This is where tactics-level countermeasures come to help.

The tactics countermeasures, while not preventing unknown tactics, and while being far from perfect in preventing all attacks, do a decent job in raising the visibility bar; the visibility that intelligence relies on. Tactics-countermeasures make it harder for the occasional terrorist to hijack an aircraft. It takes aircraft terrorism into the level that it requires preparation and cooperation, at least to some extent. By doing so, it increases the chances that intelligence can actually detect the act before the terrorist reaches the airport.

What chances do we have of detecting and mitigating a plot, using our intelligence agencies, if this plot can be carried out by an individual who wakes up in a bad mood one morning, buys a knife at Staples, and boards an airplane right after?

Focusing on countermeasures that assume particular attack tactics is extremely insufficient, but it does play an important role in making the strategic intelligence-based detection more effective. The strategic-level countermeasures may assure that we (hopefully) know of (most cases of) three terrorists planning a plot three months in advance. The tactics-level countermeasures assure that (hopefully) bombing an aircraft takes three terrorists and three months of planning.


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