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Popular security measure called ineffective, how do we make airports safe?

Budget cuts in the government’s airport security agency have meant staffing shortages at major airports across the U.S., and lines at TSA checkpoints are getting longer and longer.
Budget cuts in the government’s airport security agency have meant staffing shortages at major airports across the U.S., and lines at TSA checkpoints are getting longer and longer.
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At the heart of President Trump's travel ban is the idea that terrorists are planning to sneak into the country under the guise of refugees. And, like a lot of our concern about terrorism, the travel ban has been playing out at our nation's airports. Even before September 11th, there was a concern. Over the years, there have been a wide variety of efforts to increase airport security. 

This week, a controversial program aimed at making airports safer is coming under fire. A T.S.A. security measure called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques program, or SPOT is designed to observe travelers and identify possible terrorists. But according to a new report by the ACLU, research reveals the program is ineffective and often devolves into racial profiling.

So, would actually make an airport safer? 

We took this question to a leading expert on terror prevention. Take Two's A Martinez spoke with Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser with the RAND Corporation and Director of transportation security at the Mineta Transportation Institute. 

What does the SPOT program aim to do?

If you look at an airport security checkpoint, that in a sense is our last line of defense. That is the metal detectors, the x-ray machines, and so on. If something gets beyond that, then we're in a response mode. We're either depending on air marshals or frightened passengers attempting to overpower a hijacker if he gets into the airplane. 

So the idea was, could it be possible to push back that moment of detection of terrorist intent, enabling some kind of an earlier intervention? This has been a quest of current research. It really looks at that narrow time frame between the final commitment to action, when the attacker is on the way to the target, armed, poised to attack, and the attack itself.   

It's based upon the notion that there are some obvious indicators of criminal intent but there may be some more subtle indicators. Displays of nervousness, or evasive actions, or other things that could be detected by trained observers. 

How can we determine if a security measure is effective?

In terms of deeming it ineffective, here we have to be careful. This is not an issue we're dealing with like shoplifting. And the reason I bring shoplifting up is that shoplifting is a high volume crime. It takes place all the time. We now have sophisticated ways of measuring inventory shrinkage. We can put in security programs at department stores whether it's cameras or RFID tags, and we can measure the effects very, very quickly and make precise calculations about effectiveness. 

In the case of terrorism, and this sounds perverse, but we don't have enough terrorists. That is, you can say, well how many hijackers have there been in the United States since 9/11? And the answer is, zero. So it is difficult with any of these security measures aimed at terrorism to come up with an empirical basis for saying they work or they don't work. 

What else could be done to improve airport security?

Certainly we have done everything and the country has invested heavily, especially since 9/11 to make sure that bombs and weapons don't get on the airplanes. And this is a distinction we have to make, whether we're keeping weapons off of airplanes or whether we're protecting the airport. Until one goes through the security checkpoint, the airport, like a train station, like a bus depot, is a public place. And the question is, what can we do to improve the security of that public place? And indeed, what can we do to protect the security of any place where people may assemble. That's a real challenge. 

People have argued that we should create a second perimeter— an outer perimeter at the entrance to the airport itself. That is, before one would even enter the terminal, one would go through some kind of security scrutiny. That has been done at some airports overseas. It's an option but the concern is that is you set up an outer security perimeter, then you create lines of people waiting to go through even further out. And those lines themselves become vulnerable targets for terrorism.  

Quotes edited for clarity. 

To listen to the interview, click on the blue Media Player above.