TCS Daily

From Checklist to Checkmate

By Josh Manchester - September 28, 2006 12:00 AM

The Transportation Security Administration is partially lifting its ban on liquids brought on board aircraft. The AP reports:

"We now know enough to say that a total ban is no longer needed from a security point of view," said Kip Hawley, head of the Transportation Security Administration, at a news conference at Reagan National Airport.

He said that most liquids and gels that air travelers purchase in secure areas of airports will now be allowed on planes. He called the new procedures a "common sense" approach that would maintain a high level of security at airports but ease conditions for passengers.

In our society, when it comes to fighting the war, checklists often substitute for strategic thinking and a focus on the enemy. The most egregious offender in this regard is the Transportation Security Administration.

Air travel today is an increasingly dehumanizing experience. One is forced to pack one's belongings in a certain way; possibly not bring some key necessities, unless willing to risk losing to the baggage jungle; be treated as a number, while waiting in line at a security checkpoint; and then have to partially undress while finally entering the metal detector, sometimes barefoot on a tile floor that no one has thought to cover with even a used throw rug, even though we've been doing this now for five years.

But the most dehumanizing aspect of it all is the gnawing suspicion that thousands of people are merely performing a sort of ritualized security kabuki, and that none of it is doing any good when it comes to preventing attacks.

Sure, those who wish us harm now know that they can't get aboard planes with boxcutters, or scissors, or explosives disguised as vials of Vidal Sassoon. But our checklist mentality in attempting to thwart them is largely a reactive measure, and only tells our enemies what their parameters are -- inviting workarounds, deceit, and cleverness, rather than truly inspiring fear of detection.

The problem is that our bureaucrats focus on the composition of checklists of banned items instead of focusing on the mindset of an enemy. In combat, checklists are used regularly, but with different ends in mind: a platoon of Marines leaving a firm base in Iraq would go through numerous checklists of their equipment, weapons, communications, and so forth. But all of this is meant to put these potential problems to sleep -- to reduce friction such that the platoon is then free to focus on the enemy it is about to encounter, or the population it is about to engage. In airport security though, the checklist is the goal, rather than the actions that it enables security personnel to then take. Checklists become a sort of static defense, rather than the fluid, mobile defense that would be more amenable to both deterring and catching terrorists.

Two of the more interesting scenes in ABC's "The Path to 9/11" involved incidents where checklists weren't involved. A female Filipino police captain is suspicious of one man standing around the scene of a fire that is consuming Ramzi Yousef's apartment in Manila. Her suspicion is rewarded when the man is arrested and Yousef's laptop is recovered. Later, Diana Dean, a US Customs Agent, succeeds in picking Ahmed Ressam out of the crowd of motorists entering the United States from Canada. It turns out his trunk is filled with explosives. In neither of these incidents were the arresting officers working from a checklist or a profile. They just trusted their instincts. The next time you fly, ask yourself if the same can be said for those screening the rest of the passengers around you.

Criticism for its own sake is not the object here; instead, let's ask what might be different. How can we create a more robust airport security system? The principles to rely upon are those of unpredictability, adaptability, and decentralization.

Rather than merely jacking up the level of security only whenever the threat is higher, let's give individual airports the ability to do so at their own discretion, and tell them that they need to vary the level of security frequently in order to deter would-be attackers.

As to how to vary such procedures, let's keep our checklists, but make three or four of them, with overlapping banned items, but each slightly different. Moreover, let's then create several different profiles that are unknown to the general public. A profile is, after all, a kind of checklist. The profiles can be varied as frequently as the rest of the security procedures. The most frequent excuse for not using profiling is that terrorists would just work around the profile; but this assumes a single profile, and assumes absolutely no ability to adapt on our own part. Why not create a few profiles and use them intermittently? The goal would not be to excessively screen everyone who fits the profile; the goal would be to create such uncertainty that terrorists would never be able to fully identify the profile that is being used and then subvert it. Coupled with the decentralized nature of letting individual airports implement various levels of security randomly, this would be extremely effective, and the profiles might actually work occasionally. If they don't, they can be modified.

What of periods of heightened threats, when the general threat everywhere is higher? In those cases, the TSA could raise the level of security procedures everywhere, but still allow for some flexibility in the particulars. This too would keep an enemy off-balance.

There is a viable example of such security procedures. In high risk environments, such as US embassies in the Middle East, force protection levels are often changed dramatically from day to day and from place to place. Enemies never really know if security is heightened because of an intelligence assessment of a possible attack, or if security is just being raised at random.

The final step is to train TSA employees to think beyond the checklist mentality they currently employ. Rather than asking them to just implement a such lists, they should use banned-items checklists and then ask themselves what types of behavior would indicate someone who is attempting to get around the checklist, and then be vigilant in spotting it.

All of these procedures might increase the level of frustration that passengers have with flying. But it's also entirely possible that a more professional TSA, with more of an ambush mentality, would inspire a confidence in its abilities obviating any new frustration. In any case, a more effective and robust TSA is a worthy goal.

Josh Manchester is a contributing writer. His blog is The Adventures of Chester (



Good article. Mostly so-called security measures we see all over the place are just symbolic, not effective. It makes people feel like the nanny govnt is doing their job. For example, I was recently in a new library where they put in a security counter and metal detector, in the basement of the huge building. When I asked the guard that if a serious terrorist wanted to blow up the building, wouldn' he blow it up upstairs where there was no security at all? He said he was just doing his job.
But in the second last paragrahp, the author mentions something that the people who do the best security on airlines do; El Al, they focus on likely suspects, strange behaviour, etc. And not just young men that look like arabs either. Some time ago they stopped a heavy pregnant woman who wanted to go in the plane to Israel. The first guy thought it really odd that any husband would let his wife travel to another country at such a time, and with no known contacts to go to there. So they checked her out and sure enough she was carrying explosives under her dress. But of course Israelis have to take security more seriously than most; probably because so many people are trying to kill them.

He missed the point
and he even stated it in his own article. He started off fine, suggesting that current security is mostly placebo, but went badly off track on the remedy. He noted the futility of checklists as currently administered and cited the Resam incident as evidence, quite correctly in my view. But what's his remedy? Rotating checklists! Absurd. He speculates it might increase passenger frustration. That's a guarantee. Imagine; current security has problem enough changing protocol every few months or so. Imagine if they had to do it daily. The result is chaos.

However, the Resam incident the author quoted shows the key. Resam wasn't arrested because of anything found on him; he was detected because of his behavior. Our security is a mess and focused entirely in the wrong area. Don't worry about trinkets; look rather at who is carrying them.

With our fixation with gadgets rather than passengers, the Israeli security experts think we're all insane, as your post pointed out.

one of the best security moves would be national ID
This way at least the TSA will KNOW who is getting on the plane. all visa holders will have one too.
Pass a bill giving ID forgers in the USA or out side the USA (huge US ID forger rings in several middle american countries)the death penalty, so NOBODY would be able to get fake ID.

There are all kinds
of IDs that cannot be forged. Not a problem really.

Thats a good thing, glad to hear it.
Now lets just get some into circulation

A quote
I read a quote a few years ago from an Israeli security expert,

He stated that in the US, we look for bombs. In Israel, they look for terrorists.

In Israel, They can do that
They aren't required to say "great religion of peace" five times a day. They can look because they are willing to look in the right places and right faces. We can't find terrorists because we're busy frisking 80 year Carmelite Nuns or Hassidic Rabbis in the interest of "impartiality"

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