Belmont Club

Right of the Boom

Brian Sodergren, who is described by news media as a frequent flier, has called for a “National Opt Out Day” on which which air travelers may ‘opt’ for a time-consuming pat-down instead of a scan. This will force a system overload and forcefully convey to the TSA that its security measures are unwelcome. Who wants to endure high doses of radiation or be groped by stranger? On the other hand, who wants to be blown up in flight? Given these choices, what is a commercial air traveler to do?

argues that the problem with a “National Opt Out Day” is that it might actually work. “Some travel writers have expressed concern that the protest, called for the busiest air-travel day of the year, could cause backups and delays for all travelers.” If it works, not only will it short out the air traffic system but it will a message. The problem is: what message is that? That the public is willing to accept some amount of risk for the privilege of hassle free flying? Or the message that the government is going about security in the wrong way?

Consider the question of whether the public is now willing to accept greater risks from bomb attacks.  Whether or not to submit to an enhanced scan or a pat-down underscores the fact that security measures always have a cost; and that at some point the known costs will seen to approach the guessed benefit.  The public can legitimately decide to demand less security because it feels the net benefits are negative. But that’s probably not what the public is thinking. The safety calculus of air travel is complex.

Convenient and rapid air travel indirectly saves lives, creates jobs. Air travel travel is good, even when its nonterror dangers are factored in: exposure to natural radiation, accidental death, aircraft emissions.  Security saves, it is true, by cutting all this; but security indirectly kills too. Wired notes that “scientists have also expressed concern that radiation from the devices could have long-term health effects on travelers”. Most of all security reduces all the good things that air travel has brought. It destroys one of the miracles of the modern age. But to what good?

Policy wonks may answer to the third decimal place, but “National Opt Out Day” is probably less about making a statement of cost/benefit preference than expressing the inchoate view that government is going about airline security all wrong. The scanner brouhaha highlights as no other issue, the effectiveness, or lack thereof,  of the strategy of going after the bomb, not the bomber or the bomber instead of the bombing network.

Airport security is last-ditch point defense. It is like armor on a troop carrier or the ECM that it carries. In both Afghanistan and Iraq the US military learned from hard experience that fighting roadside bombs was both expensive and comparatively ineffective. By the time you drove up to a bomb the physics of defense were entirely against you. Similarly because the physics of bringing down a thin shelled airplane traveling at 35,000 feet require almost ridiculously small amounts of explosive the job of the airport point defense is almost insuperable.  The Armed Forces tried armoring vehicles and using electronic countermeasures at first. But they slowed down movement, burdened troops and raised costs astronomically while easily be countered by increases in bomb size or the use of standoff devices like EFPs. The Stars and Stripes describes the evolution of the response.

First soldiers rode Humvees and insurgents targeted them with radio-controlled bombs. So U.S. engineers created radio jammers.

The insurgents replied by increasing the size of the bombs and switching to vehicle-triggered pressure plates. Paladin answered by putting soldiers in MRAPs with a V-shaped hull to diffuse the blast and brought in the Husky and the mine-roller.

The insurgents then set the bombs back from the plates to outsmart the mine roller. The Americans created variable settings for the mine roller so insurgents would not know how far to offset the bombs.

Now insurgents are using command wires to trigger bombs, and U.S. troops are going back to more dismounted patrols.

“It’s a game of cat and mouse,” said Maj. Mike Slevin, deputy commander of Paladin East, an EOD officer with the Washington National Guard in Tacoma and the city’s assistant director of public works.

“You can’t stop the bombs,” he added. “You have to find the guy that’s making the bombs, the guy that’s financing the bombs. Left of the boom, find a way to use it against him before he puts another bomb in the ground.”

The process of stopping the bomb before it was emplaced is called “left of the boom”. It is a term used to describe the process of going downstream of the IED emplacement process. According to the Washington Post it was “vernacular developed by the Army in 2003: that is, to attack the bombmaking construct well before IEDs are emplaced. That involves understanding the financiers, bombmaker cells, and other aspects of this, long before a bomb appears at the roadside.”

Going even slightly Left of the Boom brings enormous benefits. The famous Israeli system of airline security which focuses on interviews of passengers by trained profilers is an example of a strategy which frankly goes after the bomber, not the bomb. But Americans in far away places and political “pariah states”  like Israel have the option to act semi-rationally. Washington, on the other hand, is under the obligation to be politically correct, which means it must by definition behave irrationally. In the case of airline security all acceptable countermeasures must avoid the appearance of going after the persons and pretend to go only after the thing.

But the TSA security theater is fooling no one except the New York Times. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for example, “issued a travel advisory for airline passengers who may be subjected to new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) ‘enhanced pat-downs’ that many of those who undergo the procedure describe as invasive and humiliating.”

* If you experience any disturbing incidents with the new pat down procedure, particularly if you feel you have been subjected to religious or racial profiling, harassment or unfair treatment, immediately file a complaint with the TSA and report the incident to your local CAIR chapter. …

* If you are selected for secondary screening after you go through the metal detector and it does not go off, and “sss” is not written on your boarding pass, ask the TSA officer if the reason you are being selected is because of your head scarf.

* In this situation, you may be asked to submit to a pat-down or to go through a full body scanner. If you are selected for the scanner, you may ask to go through a pat-down instead.

* Before you are patted down, you should remind the TSA officer that they are only supposed to pat down the area in question, in this scenario, your head and neck. They SHOULD NOT subject you to a full-body or partial-body pat-down.

* You may ask to be taken to a private room for the pat-down procedure.

* Instead of the pat-down, you can always request to pat down your own scarf, including head and neck area, and have the officers perform a chemical swipe of your hands.

Janet Napolitano should write a book to rival Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” entitled “Always Outwitted But Never Fooled”. In the end, CAIR may exempt all Muslims from pat-downs. And in the perverse nature of Washington politics that outcome will somehow solve the problem in the manner once described by a Belmont commenter as “Kick the Can Down the Road”.  An unfunded mandate which does nothing except make someone pay a bill for someone else. Nobody wants to talk about basic solutions because going even further “left of the boom” would require the government to pro-actively dismantle the bombing networks.  And that would be terribly inconvenient. Another issue of the Stars and Stripes describes what that involves. “For years, the focus of explosive ordnance disposal units was to defeat bombs, using technical expertise and downright courage to tackle the devices. That focus has shifted. ‘Now it’s evolved to attack the network,’ said Paladin East deputy commander Maj. Mike Slevin.” Unfortunately part of that network is in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

“You want to use what [the bomber] leaves on the scene through the crime to get him before he does it again.” …

In Wardak province, one of the hottest spots for IEDs, Paladin analysts say they have made some remarkable discoveries.

Wires, charges and other explosive components used in a series of bombs indicate that much of the material appears to be coming from two factories in Pakistan, said Paladin East commander Lt. Col Brennan Phillips. One is Biafo Industries Ltd., a private company that manufactures the detonators that Paladin members believe they found in some insurgent IEDs.

The other is explosives and detonator manufacturer Wah Nobel. The company is a joint venture between Saab Sweden, Almisehal Saudi Arabia and Pakistan Ordnance Factories, which are the Pakistani government’s munitions factories. Those factories are located in a high-security compound that says is also likely associated with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program.

Since the Paladins are probably not going to be allowed to attack the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, they are just going to have to shut down as much of the network as they are allowed to. But even that helps. Going far enough “left of the boom” requires a commitment to defeat the enemy,  which is not now under consideration. Even the word “enemy” is a term which itself is now in increasing disfavor. Questions like who funds the bombmakers? Underwrites the institutions that schools them? Who teaches them that Western airline passengers and passenger jets are the enemy? What are the political goals of the bombers? are all irrelevant.

None of these questions are important to, or even the business of the TSA.  Their business really isn’t security. Not fundamentally at least. The really vital security questions to air travelers are not the province of Janet Napolitano. Even if her scanners and body cavity inspectors were to perform perfectly it would not even begin to address the problem of Mumbai-style attacks, bombing attacks originating from inside the borders of the United States, or operators infiltrating over the southern border whose closure is itself regarded as a form of bigotry. Those questions are for someone else.

Ultimately the only way “National Opt Out Day” can succeed is if it becomes transformed into WTF Day. What the dickens is the overall strategy of the President and Congress towards the ‘human man made disasters’ that threaten innocent lives? The real benefit of “National Opt Out Day” is that it may someday lead to raising bigger issues. Until then, just fly the friendly skies. And bend over.

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