July 11 (Bloomberg) -- And now, two stories about the thrill of American air travel today. The subject of our first story is 24-year-old Olajide Oluwaseun Noibi, a Nigerian-American who was once enrolled as an engineering student at the University of Michigan. The subject of our second story is 95-year-old Lena Reppert, a terminally ill cancer patient.
On June 24, Noibi boarded a Los Angeles-bound Virgin America flight at New York’s Kennedy International Airport, FBI officials said, by using someone else’s boarding pass. Days later, he unsuccessfully attempted to board a Delta Air Lines flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta using a boarding pass for a flight that departed the day before, also in someone else’s name. When police searched Noibi’s bag, they discovered 10 other boarding passes, none of which bore his name.
Reppert was traveling with an authentic boarding pass, but she almost missed her flight from Florida to Michigan last month because Transportation Security Administration officials decided they couldn’t clear her through security. The reason? A suspicious anomaly in her adult diaper, which was discovered during a pat-down.
Reppert, who was traveling home to die in the company of her family, uses a wheelchair and could not pass through either an X-ray machine or the full-body scanner -- one of the very expensive machines now installed in many airports that can peer through your clothing and take pictures of your genitals.
Because the TSA could not reassure itself about the nature of the alarming anomaly, Reppert’s daughter wheeled her mother (her dying mother, let me repeat) to a bathroom, where, in the interest of securing the American homeland, she removed the diaper. Reppert was patted down again, and then allowed to pass through security. She flew home without the protection of a diaper, or the benefit of underwear.
I’m not one to automatically assume that the diaper and its owner were harmless, simply because they appeared to have been harmless. I once watched an obese nun in a wheelchair board a plane, and I suspected at that moment that she could have been the ne plus ultra of clandestine al-Qaeda operatives. Unlikely, yes, but terrorists can be clever.
If Reppert had been profiled -- not racially, but through behavioral observation and a background check -- it wouldn’t have been necessary to order off her diaper. And the U.S. government, if it really applied itself, could probably ascertain whether the owner of a soiled diaper posed a threat without profiling her, and without humiliating her. But since the airport-security system is not interested in people, but in the things they possess, it was necessary to suspect that Reppert was a terrorist until proved otherwise.
I’m writing this column aboard a flight from Detroit to Amsterdam. I first entered the TSA matrix for this trip at Reagan National Airport. As is my practice, I opted out of the body imager and asked for a pat-down. I do this in part because I don’t trust the government’s assurances that the radiation emitted by the machines is harmless. And also because I don’t enjoy raising my hands like a mugging victim inside a radioactive box so a government agent can look at me naked.
During this pat-down, the TSA agent, while running his hands carefully up my leg, came across a small bump near my left knee. He asked me to describe the nature of the bump. I told him it was a benign cyst. (I realize I’m oversharing, but there’s a purpose to this story.) The agent called over a supervisor. The supervisor questioned me about the cyst. The supervisor and the agent then discussed the cyst. This has happened to me at two other checkpoints. My dermatologist is much less interested in this cyst than is the Department of Homeland Security. Eventually, the supervisor ruled that the cyst (or, I should say, “alleged cyst”) was too small to be a threat to a commercial airliner.
Three years ago, as an experiment, I carried aboard airliners objects such as knives, Hezbollah flags, matches from hotels in Peshawar and Beirut, and box-cutters, in addition to my benign cyst. I was never caught. It’s not hard to sneak banned objects on planes. (You should see the size of my toothpaste -- gargantuan.)
As part of this experiment, which I wrote about originally for the Atlantic, I collaborated with security expert Bruce Schneier to see whether we could penetrate TSA checkpoints carrying fake boarding passes. Schneier manufactured these passes on his home computer. We didn’t attempt to board airplanes with these passes, but they did get us through security without delay.
Which brings me back to the intrepid Mr. Noibi. At roughly the same time the TSA was humiliating Lena Reppert and her family, the TSA was itself being humiliated by Noibi, who seemed to beat the system because the TSA, almost 10 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, still has no way to ascertain at its checkpoints whether a boarding pass is genuine.
A Brighter Idea
The TSA’s defenders argue that the agency is more nimble than ever technologically, and they point to the new body-imaging machines as proof that its agents are equipped to discover weapons and explosives hidden under clothing. Except for one thing. The Obama administration announced last week that terrorists may be trying to carry surgically implanted bombs onto commercial flights. The body-imaging machines can’t see beneath the skin. So these machines are now officially irrelevant, thanks to the surgical innovators of al-Qaeda. The TSA is in a losing battle.
So here’s a brighter idea: The government could recognize that it’s impossible to screen passengers (and cargo) for every type of banned material. If a terrorist plot has gone undiscovered by the world’s intelligence agencies, by the U.S. military, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and by local law enforcement, the chance is high that the plotters are also more sophisticated than the TSA. It’s better to accept some level of risk, minimize the TSA’s ever more intrusive disruptions to American life, and redirect some of its enormous budget to agencies that can eliminate terrorist plots before they mature to the point that conspirators are boarding planes.
The Noibi case shows that the TSA hasn’t proved it can secure our airports. And the Reppert scandal suggests that we pay, in dignity and privacy, far too high a price for security that is entirely symbolic.
(Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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