Within the body of President Obama's June 2011 National Strategy for Counterterrorism there exists a tension between traditional values and the need for security. The Strategy states that one of our core values is respect for privacy rights, civil liberties, and civil rights, while later describes an enhanced aviation security program that implements a new, real-time, "threat-based" screening policy for all international flights to the United States.
At issue is the delicate balance of adhering to those values while instituting security policies such as the new "threat-based" screening. Moreover, how that policy relates to those core values and to what lengths a civil society is willing to go to protect its citizenry through implementation of such a program.
Societies will and do react to major terrorist events. The "threat-based" screening policy is a response to the Fort Hood, Detroit-bound airline, and Times Square bombing plot incidents. The Antiterroism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDP) of 1996 came after the Oklahoma City Bombing, while the post-9/11 U.S. Patriot Act passed in October 2011. These earlier acts were criticized for government over-reach upon our civil liberties, and this new airport screening policy is no exception. At present we have the luxury of critiquing such acts while enjoying a relative lull from any significant terrorist activity.
On a recent Academic Fellows trip to Israel, witnessing first-hand the ubiquitous counterterrorism measures, it was apparent that no such lull is afforded to local police, border control, prison authority, or military units visited. The balancing act of weighing security of citizens and maintaining civil liberties is contentious and not taken lightly. Mistakes are made in dealing with terrorists on a daily basis in an open, democratic society. But states do act in their own interests when threatened, and the U.S. is no exception.
Before entering Israel, and upon leaving, the layers of screening through interview by airline and customs personnel were comprehensive and intrusive, more for some than others. Critics of comparisons between Israeli and U.S. airline screening are quick to point out the vast number of inbound passengers to the U.S. and the difficulty of performing interviews with each one. Whether El Al is able to perform one-on-one interviews due to the relatively small number of passengers entering Israel or because of the level of governmental-importance placed on these interviews, is better left to other analysis.
Looking at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website, it's difficult to find how invasive the new U.S. "threat-based" screening policy will be and what exactly it entails. What can be found on their link is an "identity-based" screening, though how the two screening programs relate is unclear.
TSA does provide a glimpse of their program's layers, such as the Behavior Detection Officer, designed to detect individuals exhibiting behaviors that indicate they may be a threat to security.
TSA Administrator John Pistole told the American Bar Association in March that his vision is to accelerate TSA's evolution into a truly risk-based, intelligence-driven organization. He added that the vast majority of the 628 million passengers present little-to-no risk of committing an act of terrorism and that TSA wants to focus on higher-risk passengers, while speeding and enhancing the passenger experience at the airport.
Quoted in a New York Post online article, a former head of Israel's El Al airline security stated, "How do you want [agents] to judge who is looking suspicious and who is not? Who is fitting the intelligence profile of a possible terrorist?" He said the only way to provide real security is to interview every single passenger.
Interviewing every U.S. bound international passenger may be cost & time-prohibitive, and how these interviews affect our civil liberties, as opposed to physical or x-ray screening, would need to stand up to criticism.
As long as we enjoy a relative lull in homeland terrorist activity, America can afford to continue to improve passengers' travel experiences without infringing upon its citizen's liberties. The ability to refrain from encroaching on those liberties may well depend on how well the President's screening keep Americans safe.
As revealed by recent intelligence on surgically implanted explosive devices, terrorists are willing to go to great lengths to attack our society. The question is: how far is the U.S. willing to go to protect it?
Colonel Steven R. Charbonneau is a military professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island and a 2011-12 Academic Fellows with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). The views expressed here are his alone and do not reflect those of FDD, the Naval War College or the Department of Defense.