Friday, November 21, 2003

Cutting Corners at the TSA Okay, a more complete analysis of the Transportation Security Administration's recent announcement that it will begin to require the screening of freight cargo traveling on passenger planes. (For the TSA's full plan, click here.)

When you break down the part of the plan dealing with passenger planes, it seems to employ two basic strategies:

1: Random cargo searches conducted by the cargo carriers themselves, under TSA supervision.

2: The implimentation of new security procedures designed to locate cargo shipments that are of "elevated risk" so that they can be searched.

Now, it should be said at the outset that this an important step. From the terrorist's point of view, the air cargo system has gone from being an inviting target to something more complicated. Any terrorist trying to take down a plane will need to spend time and money to work around these procedures, and weigh the increased risk that he or she may get caught.

That said, from the point of view of an airline passenger, the new plan seems vastly inadequate.

And that's because when I take a flight, I don't just want it to be costly and complicated for a terrorist to bring the plane down, I want it to be close to impossible. More specifically, I don't just want to know that none of the cargo on board is thought to be of "elevated risk." I want to know that there aren't any bombs on the plane.

Indeed, this seems to be the logic of the screening of airline passengers and their bags.

But if, as a society, we feel it's necessary to search passengers themselves for explosives--if we don't trust passengers not to bring down their own planes--how can we trust the packages brought on board by non-passengers without applying the same security standards?

Well, as a matter of fact, the TSA's report contains a hint of an answer:

In developing the Strategic Plan, TSA carefully evaluated the feasibility of physically screening 100 percent of all air cargo. Limitations of technology and infrastructure make such an undertaking impractical, from both a flow-of-commerce and resource point of view.

So there you have it: Too expensive, too inconvenient.

There's been a lot of talk by some conservatives about how liberals Just Don't Get the post-9/11 reality. I would submit, however, that until Republicans are willing to speak out for security enhancements that will be costly and inconvenient for their donors and political allies, they're the ones not ready to face the music.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.