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Charting the evolution of security screening after 9/11

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: Federal workers with The Transportation Security Administration, the TSA, have run security at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and Love Field since July. The TSA took over what low-bid private firms had done for two generations of passengers; staff the federally mandated metal detector and x-ray screening stations. Soon after 9/11, screeners also started checking for pocket knives and other metal items. They also looked at passenger's shoes and conducted "random" checks at airline gates. People haven't exactly liked being pulled out of line. Political satirist Bill Maher talked about his experiences recently on Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

Bill Maher, political satirist, author, TV personality: All I know is, public people have been stopped because it's too much fun to go through Kevin Bacon's shaving kit.

Zeeble: Maher, whose TV show, "Politically Incorrect," was recently cancelled, just wrote "When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us To Help Fight the War on Terrorism."

Maher: "Ray Charles was pulled over and he didn't like it one bit. If you're over 70 and blind, I don't think that's a problem. Al Gore was even pulled over. It's mindless and silly, and won't help. There's a finite amount of time and manpower to check people. If we pretend we must randomly suspect everyone equally, we're going to be in big trouble."

Zeeble: But the random check before you board the plane may soon be gone.

Mike Restovich, Federal Security Director, Love Field: Admiral Loy has said he'd like to do way with gate screening.

Zeeble: Mike Restovich, the Federal Security Director at Dallas' Love Field, is talking about Admiral James Loy, who took over the TSA in July. Restovich spoke yesterday in Love Field's lobby, right in front of the passenger check-in.

Restovich: When that goes away and we do it here instead at the main checkpoint, there's still going to be a certain level of roving gate screening going on.

Zeeble: Restovich wouldn't discuss the criteria for those roving checks, but experts in the field say they're based on suspicions by a screener, or a warning sign gleaned off a so-called profile list. Such an inventory of red flags was first compiled 30 years ago, following a blur of domestic and international hijackings. The 25 or so criteria alerted security personnel and airlines what and who to look out for. The 1975 Al Pacino movie "Dog Day Afternoon" offers a classic example of one kind of hijacker. Pacino plays Sonny, whose attempted bank robbery goes bad when police surround the building. He tells his accomplice Sal he's got a plan to get away. He'll use hostages to demand a jet.

Al Pacino, in the role of "Sonny" from "Dog Day Afternoon": "Sal, I can make it happen! We can leave the country. There's no coming back, so you better say goodbye to those closest to you, call them now. Is there any country you want go to? [Sal: Wyoming.] No, Wyoming, it's not a country. I'll take care of it."

Zeeble: Former Navy pilot and FBI agent Eric Rigler, who's now a consultant in aviation security, says potential hijackers like Sonny and Sal were inadequate personalities who wanted to flee the country, and justice. Others in the 1970's wanted to impress girlfriends. Some were mentally unstable and suicidal.

Eric Rigler, former pilot and FBI agent, aviation security specialist: We had a case where someone hijacked a plane out of Baltimore and simply wanted to fly out over the Atlantic until it ran out of gas.

Zeeble: But Rigler says many items on that 1972 profile list formed the foundation for today's screeners, and there was always the concern about the serious hijacker and terrorist.

Rigler: Among the items was whether the individual paid cash. Whether the individual purchased a one-way ticket. Whether the individual appeared without a reservation.

Zeeble: These days, someone with a reservation but flying for the first time will also raise suspicion, and for that very reason, may be closely searched. But for the most part, Rigler's list is familiar to today's sophisticated and frequent flyers. Yet it will keep growing as the hijacker profile changes. The Constitution bans scrutiny of passengers based on race, religion, national origin and sexual orientation. But aviation attorney Kent Krause says certain aspects of national origin can be scrutinized.

Kent Krause, aviation attorney: When you have a person who has actually just recently come from this country that is on a list of countries like Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, where we believe known terrorists are harbored and have been developed, that that is a different sort of concept we've historically thought of as national origin. I think to say, "what is your recent immigration status?" and tie that to particular original countries, is what is being done. And it is appropriate under the law.

Zeeble: Yet other changes are on the way, including some whose constitutional status remains unclear. So-called biometric cards, for use by both frequent flyers and airport personnel, are on the TSA to-do list. They'd be issued to a person who voluntarily releases private information for a security check. The card might contain a finger or retina print to verify the cardholder's identity. While some worry such a high-tech system could ultimately violate a citizen's Fourth Amendment privacy rights, Electronic Data Systems' Mike Hulley, who heads the company's global transportation group, says EDS is already using its Express Entry system in Tel Aviv.

Mike Hulley, Electronic Data Systems president, Global Transportation Industry group: 80,000 people have registered for the program, registered of their own accord, and have even paid the money to do the registration. They've registered a biometric, they've submitted to a background check. So now, they're a known traveler. Now it takes them about fifteen seconds to float through the airport as opposed to two hours previously. Since the system's been in place over the last few years, over 2 million have used it for boardings.

Zeeble: Two undisclosed U.S. airports are currently testing the EDS Express Entry system. Neither the company nor the TSA would say how it's going or when the test will end. TSA officials say they've got other needs to meet ahead of a biometric system, including explosive detection devices. They're supposed to be in every airport by December 31st, but are running behind. Time and money are the biggest obstacles to state-of-the-art air security, but Mike Hulley suspects the public is now ready to pay the multi-billion dollar cost of a fully integrated security system.

Hulley: You can't just do this part way. It's not just matter of stepping up screeners at the airports. You have to go flat out and build systems that integrate from the time you make reservations to the time you step into the airplane, and there are dozens of intersection points, whether baggage reconciliation systems or self service kiosks. There are so many points that must be choreographed and integrated into this whole model.

Zeeble: Congress hasn't yet committed to this huge, financial high-tech package, which just fits into the even larger multi-layered domestic security agenda. But elected officials are committed to the goal of providing greater air security and fewer hassles for passengers. They're working on it a few steps at a time. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.

To contact Bill Zeeble, please send emails to bzeeble@kera.org.