Airport Screening Is Just for Us Common Folk
by Judith Miller
Enough already. Legislators and senior government officials should be required to submit to the new airport screening measures themselves before they require ordinary Americans to do so.
Speaking over the weekend to NATO allies, President Obama said he understood why Americans were "frustrated" with the intensive new pat-downs for those who resist the 400 revealing full-body scans now in use at some 69 airports nationwide, or for those who submit to such screening but set off metal detectors or a warning light on the scanners. Obama asked the Transportation Security Administration whether there wasn't a less "intrusive" way to protect American flyers.
Nope, they told him. This was the only way to protect us against the type of bomb that the Christmas day Underwear Bomber – Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – managed to sneak past the metal detectors and on board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit last year.
Don't care to submit to either the full-body scan or the junk grope? Too bad. It's this way or the highway, TSA told the president. Literally, it seems. Don't want to be screened? Don't fly. Or take Amtrak (until some other genius government bureaucrat decides to tighten security on the railroads too.) Or drive. Or take a hike.
Of course, President Obama was honest enough to acknowledge that he doesn't know what it's like to be subjected to such screening each time he flies to New York or overseas at taxpayer expense. Nor do Michelle Obama and her two daughters. Nor does the retinue of Cabinet officers, aides, planners, advisers, advance teams, security staff and yes, even the reporters who accompany them. (I still have an ancient packet of Air Force One matches gathering dust on my desk to remind me of what first class travel was like in America.)
But what about incoming House Speaker John Boehner? And soon-to-be incoming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi? Nope. They don't get screened either. While lecturing us common folk on the need for such security, Pelosi has used a U.S. military jet plane large enough to avoid refueling to fly home to her district in San Francisco. And we learned from The New York Times on Saturday that Rep. Boehner, who boasted that unlike other unmentionables he would fly commercial back home to Ohio the way ordinary Americans do, was whisked past those pesky identity checks, metal detectors and body scanners directly to the gate by law enforcement agents. Time is money for the incoming speaker.
The non-screening "privilege," the Times reports, turns out to apply to "Congressional leaders or members of Congress with armed security details." Soon it will also apply to pilots, who, unlike flight attendants, managed to win exemption from screening after repeated complaints about being subjected repeatedly to the extra doses of radiation the full-body scanners emit.
And, of course, the exemption applies to the one percent of Americans who are millionaires, or any American wealthy enough – or friendly enough with the superrich – to fly private jets to their destinations. That includes presidential candidates of both political parties to be sure. And it also includes almost half of the Congress, with or without law enforcement agents in tow. The Center for Responsive Politics, a DC-based, non-partisan think tank, recently reported that nearly half of the 535 members of Congress are millionaires, a small increase over last year. Fifty-five of them had an average of $10 million or more, with eight in the $100 million-plus range, excluding their homes, the study shows. Not bad considering that the base pay for legislators' salaries is $174,000 and has been frozen since 2009.
Ordinary legislators didn't do badly either, however. While over 9.5 percent of Americans remain unemployed and Congress preaches fiscal austerity and budget discipline for the masses, Congressional members' personal wealth collectively increased by more than 16 percent between 2008 and 2009, Jennifer DePaul reported in Fiscal Times.
Don't get me wrong. I'm in favor of the full-body scanners in the absence of an effective alternative. I cover terrorism and national security for a living. I also fly if there is no alternative. This weekend, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula bragged about its successful effort to evade detectors and place two bombs aboard Fedex and UPS cargo planes. AQAP vowed to bleed us to death "by a thousand cuts" by forcing America and its allies to adopt security measures that would slow trade and bankrupt us all. In a special edition of Inspire, the Yemen-based group's English on-line magazine, the jihadis boasted that what they called Operation Hemorrhage had cost them little – only $4,200 in readily available materials. But the cost to us was huge.
Alerted to the cargo bomb plot by Saudi Arabian intelligence, law enforcement officials in a half-dozen countries chased the packages across continents and five countries, frantically struggling to prevent the bombs from detonating. This was a terrifyingly close squeak, but, perhaps, just a glimpse of threats to come.
Security experts love quoting Israeli security experts who say that their country does not rely on such expensive scanners and other high-tech solutions. Israeli security is brilliant and thorough, because it must be. But Israel has one major international airport. The United States has 5,000 airports with paved runways, 376 of which have regularly scheduled airline service. And Israeli security is hugely expensive compared to America's, according to Bloomberg News. By its analysis, Israel spends around 10 times more per passenger than the United States does –or about $100 million a year for security for El Al, or $76.92 per trip by its 1.3 million passengers (half of which is picked up by the Israeli government). United States, by contrast, spent in 2008 $5.74 billion to monitor and protect 735,297,000 passenger trips, or around $7.80 a passenger.
Moreover, were America to try to adopt Israel's system, the TSA would probably become the nation's largest single employer. In a blog posted by Foreign Policy, Annie Lowrey estimated that subjecting each passenger flying through a U.S. airport to an average 10 minutes of questioning by one guard (Israel's average is 15-20 minutes) would require about 7.35 billion minutes, or 123 million hours, of work annually. "We'd need 3 million full-time guards to perform it," she wrote. Or "200,000 more people than the total number of active and reserve military personnel, and twice the number of U.S. Wal-Mart employees." And that would also cost at least $150 billion a year.
So take off those shoes, unbuckle those belts, and step up to the scanner. Or follow the advice of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who flies military jets all the time but is also wealthy enough to afford a private jet when she doesn't fly for the government. Asked over the weekend if she would submit to an intrusive pat-down on a security line, she went off-message and spoke from the heart.
"Not if I could avoid it," she said. "No. I mean, who would?"