Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

« Previous Post | Opinion L.A. Home | Next Post »

Sen. Rand Paul would rather walk than be patted down by the TSA

January 23, 2012 | 12:00 pm

Rand Paul
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has been a vocal critic of the Transportation Safety Administration's screening procedures at airports, particularly its insistence on "invasive" (Paul's term) pat-downs of travelers regardless of how young or old they might be. So it was just a matter of time before Paul had a run-in with the TSA outside the halls of Congress.

That time came Monday morning. The TSA stopped Paul from entering the gate area of the Nashville airport after he set off an alarm in a body scanner, then refused to be patted down by security personnel. Paul's office issued a tweet saying he'd been "detained," but TSA officials said local police merely walked him out of the screening area. Paul caught a flight to Washington later without further incident.

Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), took time off from the presidential campaign to fire off an outraged statement:

The police state in this country is growing out of control. One of the ultimate embodiments of this is the TSA that gropes and grabs our children, our seniors, and our loved ones and neighbors with disabilities. The TSA does all of this while doing nothing to keep us safe.

That is why my "Plan to Restore America," in additional to cutting $1 trillion in federal spending in one year, eliminates the TSA.

But what, exactly, went wrong in Nashville? Paul went into a body scanner, which detected something anomalous on one of Paul's knees. In that circumstance, TSA procedures call for security personnel to investigate further, by hand. That's the infamous pat-down. The younger Paul's office indicated that the TSA refused the senator's request to be rescanned in lieu of being patted down, which is why he wasn't allowed into the secure gate area.

Rand Paul has argued that the TSA should exercise more judgment in deciding whom to pat down, and it should offer a way for frequent fliers to avoid close scrutiny. As the senator put it at a congressional hearing, "A big bulk of those traveling are traveling two, three times a week, and yet we treat everybody equally as a terror suspect."

That's a good argument. Nevertheless, one of the lessons we've learned in the wake of the 9/11 attacks is that Al Qaeda designs its plots to take advantage of weaknesses it finds in security procedures. The more exceptions you carve out to screening rules, the more opportunities you create for the bad guys. And if you give more power to individual screeners to decide whom to admit and whom to block, you raise the likelihood that terrorists will apply social engineering to the problem -- in other words, finding ways to corrupt an individual screener instead of exploiting holes in the procedures.

That's a long way of saying that airport security involves trade-offs. Do you want TSA agents to use their judgment and give heightened scrutiny only to passengers who fit a terrorist profile, as Israeli airport security personnel do? Then invest a whale of a lot more in training (and get ready for a true "police state" approach to airline travel). That may be a better approach, but it won't happen by eliminating funding for the TSA.

I don't fly as much as either of the Pauls, so maybe I'm too glib about the hassles they encounter. But I'm glad the TSA didn't bend its procedures to accommodate the younger Paul. They don't rescreen adults when anomalies are detected, they do pat-downs. (In response to Rand Paul's previous complaints, they will rescreen young children.) As long as that's the rule, it should be the rule for everyone.


Rand Paul the relic

Ron Paul's grandfatherly advice for Iowans

Ron Paul learns what happens to candidates who embrace religious extremists

-- Jon Healey

Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

Comments ()