National Security

You Can Leave Your Shoes On

Why sequester could make air travel a whole lot better.

Sequestration is coming...maybe. The $85 billion in spending cuts that were designed to force Congress to the bargaining table will go into effect March 1, and Washington is warning it could make your airport experience even more miserable than usual. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said sequestration could cause delays because fewer air traffic controllers means fewer flights. And Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress that spending cuts could lead to longer security lines at airports, as the Transportation Security Administration deploys fewer officers.

But, to be blunt, the length and speed of security lines at airports are a function of the TSA's inefficient security methodology, not its budget and staff. Reduced federal funds will magnify this inefficiency, but to claim longer lines are purely a result of budget cuts is a cop-out. Sequestration is actually an opportunity for the TSA to abandon its insistence on screening all airline passengers, which demands extraordinary resources and manpower, and instead adopt a more efficient and effective approach. If it does, budget cuts might be the best thing that ever happened to airport screening.

For years, the TSA has attempted to detect every single threat to the U.S. transportation system. In aviation, this has meant scanning every bag, every piece of cargo, and every man, woman, and child that comes through an airport. This 100 percent methodology is deceptively simple, and it gives the false impression that if everything on an airplane has been scanned, then there is no threat. But it is flawed. Detecting and stopping every threatening item and person is not possible. Eventually, there will be another "failure of imagination," a black swan that undercuts the misperception that U.S. transportation is completely secure.

Some degree of risk is unavoidable, and spending tax dollars with abandon chasing after the unobtainable is a waste. Worse, in trying to stop every potential danger, low priorities receive an inordinate amount of attention. For example, in April 2005, the TSA started confiscating cigarette lighters because they could be used to ignite a bomb. This meant ferreting out about 22,000 lighters a day (which cost $4 million annually to destroy). In having transportation security officers focus their attention on lighters, they potentially missed other threatening items -- such as the very bomb components the lighter supposedly could ignite. This is precisely why TSA Administrator Kip Hawley removed the lighter ban in 2007.

Other aspects of TSA's airport passenger screening follow the same methodology that banned lighters. Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) machines (aka full-body scanners) are at best a deterrent, and at worst, a waste of money. Of the full-body scanners in use across the United States, exactly none of them could have detected the explosives hidden in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underwear during his attempted 2009 attack. Nor can these machines detect explosives hidden inside the body, either in a cavity or surgically implanted. This is a tactic al Qaeda terrorists have already used in attacks in other countries, most notably in the 2009 attempted assassination of Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif.

The 100 percent methodology was also behind the controversial full-body pat downs levied against every passenger who refused to pass through or who triggered an AIT machine. This suggests a 3-year-old child, a terminally ill cancer patient, and a grandmother in her 90s all present the same level of threat as a Yemeni national visiting the United States with a one-way plane ticket. This is, of course, absurd.

When it comes to passenger screening, the TSA has answered the aviation threat with manpower and dollars, but not much common sense. However, times are changing, albeit slowly. This is where sequestration can help.

In recent years, the TSA (and the Department of Homeland Security writ large) has begun shifting to a risk-based security methodology. This is a far more efficient and effective approach to securing people and cargo because it recognizes that there are variations in the threat level. The TSA has already begun implementing risk-based screening in cargo security, and the agency is also starting to amend passenger screening policies.

Last year, the TSA announced that children under 12 and passengers 75 and older could wear their shoes and light jackets during screening and could pass through an AIT machine one extra time if their first pass detected "an anomaly." The agency's website proudly declares that these adjustments are "part of TSA's overarching risk-based security methodology."

It's a good start, but more changes are needed. At its best, risk-based screening would draw on a range of intelligence -- like behavioral analysis, origin and destination points, nationality, and other passenger data -- in addition to body scanning and physical inspection. It would allow the TSA to focus most of its resources on the most likely threats. This would be a more efficient, expedient, and effective way of determining who among the million-plus people flying in the United States every day could put lives in jeopardy.

Risk-based screening, however, can be a tough pill for some to swallow. Scanning every passenger has a lot of political value, as it shows that elected officials and government agencies are tough on terrorism, doing whatever they can to protect the public. The 100 percent methodology is easy to sell because it gives the impression that U.S. aviation security is impenetrable, even though it is not.

Given this, shifting to this smarter, more cost-effective screening methodology cannot happen overnight. The TSA is slowly wading into the risk-based waters, but with sequestration looming, this is the perfect opportunity for the TSA to explain and implement the risk-based methodology across the board. Short on resources, asked to do more with less, the TSA will be able to make the case that the 100 percent security methodology is untenable in the current economy. Fortunately, however, a risk-based methodology will allow the agency to maintain or even elevate the level of security it provides.

The TSA could draw down its use of AIT machines and reduce the resources needed to maintain them. For every full-body scanner, the TSA requires a team of officers. Most concourses have several machines and most airports have several concourses. That costs a significant amount in salaries and technology acquisitions just to watch an irritated public (virtually all of which is benign) shuffle through million-dollar machines. Fewer officers mean fewer salaries paid with limited tax dollars.

But the TSA need not hand pink slips to most airport screening officers. Some are essential, and following the risk-based methodology, the agency might also retrain and move select staff to the front lines as behavioral detection officers or even beyond airport grounds in conspicuous and proactive Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response units. These are things the TSA already does, and in the face of a lower budget but a consistent threat, it needs to do more of them.

The TSA's mandate is clear: Protect the public. A smaller budget is no excuse for reduced security or reduced throughput. The TSA has the means and the methodology to make airport screening faster, cheaper, and more effective, and it should take this opportunity to put the pedal down on risk-based screening. Even though sequestration is a monster invented by Congress, if airport security lines grow longer after March 1, the blame can be laid fully at the TSA's feet.

Natalie Behring/Getty Images

National Security

The First Rule of Drone Club

The bad lessons Turkey learned from Obama's war from above.

As the United States continues to grapple with the legal ramifications of using armed unmanned aerial vehicles to strike individuals, a slew of countries are eager to develop their own drones and mimic American tactics. Turkey is an avid supporter of drones and argues that it needs an indigenously-built UAV to combat the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish insurgents it has been fighting since the 1980s. The problem is that the Turkish republic seems to have adopted the principles currently guiding the U.S. use of drones: Say nothing about how you employ them and ignore the potential consequences.

The PKK has come to dominate the country's security planning, but for years the Turkish Army's large conscript force and emphasis on heavy equipment left it ill-equipped to effectively fight an insurgency, particularly during the winter months. So, in addition to professionalizing its forces, it focused on improving its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Ankara, therefore, purchased off-the-shelf drone systems from the United States, partnered with Israel for sale of Heron UAVs, and launched an effort to build one of its own -- an effort that has apparently come to fruition. Turkey now claims that the country's first domestically produced UAV -- a reconnaissance drone dubbed the "Anka" -- is set for serial production.

While the Anka was beset with problems during testing, the drone is reported to be able to operate for 24 hours at an altitude up to 30,000 feet in adverse weather conditions during the day or at night. The Anka will primarily be used to surveil Turkey's Kurdish majority southeast and the PKK camps in the Kandil Mountains in Northern Iraq. Ankara hopes to develop an armed version of the Anka so that it can decrease the time needed to launch airstrikes against Kurdish targets. To help augment Turkey's drone capabilities in the interim, Ankara has requested unarmed and armed Predator and Reaper drones from the United States.

Despite Turkey's repeated requests, U.S. export control law and congressional opposition will likely prevent the sale, but the Obama administration has sought to appease its Turkish counterparts and has agreed to station four unarmed Predator drones at Incirlik Air Force Base. The drones are flown by an American contractor from a joint operations center near Ankara. Turkish Air Force officers are in the room with their American counterparts and reportedly have the authority to direct the drones' movements.

In 2011, Turkish officers in the Ankara operations center directed an American drone to surveil a known smuggling route near the Kurdish majority town of Uludere.* After a group of men were spotted crossing the border illegally, the Turks reportedly ordered the Predator to fly away. A Turkish Heron then picked up the surveillance, and the Turkish Air Force bombed the smugglers.

*Correction: This sentence originally misstated the year of the surveilance as 2007. 

It was later revealed that the group of men were not members of the PKK, but 34 Kurdish citizens attempting to eke out a living by smuggling subsidized Iraqi gasoline to Turkey for resale. The subsequent uproar has led to a parliamentary investigation, though the report has been repeatedly delayed, and no minister has resigned. Most believe that the government is conspiring to prevent the authorities from carrying out their investigation in order to protect the person responsible for issuing the kill order.

Turkey's pursuit of armed drones reflects, in part, the new consensus, driven by the United States, that they are useful, even critical, for counterterrorism. But there is little acknowledgment of the difficulties and dangers that drones pose. For example, few Turkish officials have made clear to the electorate that drones rely heavily on human operators and pre-existing intelligence. Nor have they acknowledged that the total cost of operating armed drones is reported to be higher than 240 F-16s in the Turkish Air Force. Most significantly, few in Turkey have grappled with the moral and legal implications of a country -- one hoping to join the European Union -- using drones to assassinate its own citizens.

Turkey hasn't addressed the regional implications of increased drone use either. Unlike the United States, it has not received overflight rights from the countries where it would likely use its drones. Given Turkey's tense relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, it is unlikely to secure drone overflight rights similar to those used by the United States in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. It is also unlikely that Turkish ally Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), would turn a blind eye to the Turkish military operating and using armed drones to kill Iraqi Kurds. True, it is widely believed that Turkey is using its fleet of Herons to violate Iraqi airspace to monitor PKK bases in Kandil. However, if Iraqi territory were repeatedly targeted with drone-fired missiles, relations with Baghdad would sour and Turkey's close alliance with the KRG would flag.

Turkey's desire to export the Anka could also undermine its recent efforts to stem proliferation in the region. Turkish President Abdullah Gul told the opening session of Turkey's parliament in October 2012 that the threats posed by WMD in the region reinforced the need to make progress towards a Middle East WMD-free zone. But Egypt, which is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), has agreed to purchase ten Anka drones from Turkey's Turkish Aersopace Industries. If the sale is finalized, Ankara will have agreed to export a dual-use item to a non-signatory of the CWC that has a history of chemical weapons use (in North Yemen in the 1960s). While it is unlikely that Egypt would arm the Anka with chemical weapons, the sale would nevertheless send conflicting messages about Turkey's commitment to regional disarmament and nonproliferation.

So, just like the United States, Turkey faces a series of unresolved political, legal, and strategic issues as it moves forward with its drone program. It may well conclude that armed drones -- and even the assassination of Turkish citizens -- are vital for Turkish security. But whatever debate the government is having is a mystery. Turkey, therefore, appears to have adopted almost all of the American established norms associated with drones. The problem is those norms are to keep all of the details secret and to prevent the public from weighing in.

Senior Airman Anthony Sanchelli/DVIDS