Tuesday’s terrorist attack on Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul has again has renewed the debate among security experts about whether the United States should widen the security perimeter beyond the airport terminal.
As with the March 22 attack on Brussels’ airport, the Istanbul strike focused security officials on the daunting challenge of trying to secure transportation hubs and other public spaces without unduly impeding travel and business.
Some have suggested that the Transportation Security Administration should explore ways to screen passengers and luggage offsite, perhaps in satellite parking lots or access roads, as it’s done in Israel and some conflict zones, or at least at the entrance to the terminal.
“That’s one of the possibilities,” former TSA administrator John S. Pistole said. “There’s got to be a start to the outer limit of security, and wherever that it is, it’s the initial point of vulnerability.”
Others argue that layering on more security might just create more inconvenience than additional safety. A wider perimeter requires additional resources to keep it secure. And a confrontation can only be pushed back so far and for so long: wherever there’s a checkpoint, there’s usually a crowded line, and nothing is as vulnerable to mass casualties as a crowd. And it turns out that Turkey was screening passengers at the entrances of its airport.
Pistole, a former FBI agent who was credited with transforming the TSA into an agency that took a more proactive role identifying terrorist threats, said under his tenure that the agency periodically reviewed the feasibility of screening beyond the airport terminal, but that such a strategy also had to be weighed against budget constraints and creating additional obstacles for business and passengers.
“You can assume, in short, all possible options are being explored right now,” Pistole said.
A spokesman for the TSA referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the TSA. The DHS, through a spokesman, wouldn’t discuss whether the agencies were considering additional screening before passengers enter terminals other than to say that the “DHS and our partners routinely adapt both seen and unseen security measures in order to counter evolving threats.” DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson on Thursday told a Senate panel that DHS has enhanced security at the nation’s airports since the Belgium attack.
The New York Times on Friday asked, “Does More Security at Airports Make Us Safer or Just Move the Targets?” The article noted that Istanbul’s airport had more layers of protection than U.S. airports, including metal detectors for luggage and passengers as they enter the terminal.
The paper, citing Turkish officials, reported that the attackers tried to enter the building but were turned away at the security screening. They then retrieved firearms from their suitcases and returned; two of them then took advantage of the chaos to enter the terminal, the paper says.
In an interview on NPR’s “Here & Now,” former DHS security adviser Fran Townsend acknowledged that terrorists have demonstrated an ability to modify their tactics whenever new security measures are added. But she also suggested that identifying and engaging with attackers further from an enclosed space makes sense.
“So, in the example of Turkey, they do have a preliminary screening right as you come in through the main door. And every time you harden, and push out your preliminary screening point, they find another vulnerability,” Townsend said. “The Turkish response, the law enforcement response there, was very quick. The numbers could have been much worse.”
Townsend also said the latest attack should prompt a reappraisal of security around “soft targets” such as shopping malls, perhaps by using metal detectors at the entrances, despite the potential risk of creating lines at those checkpoints that are vulnerable.
“[T]he risk on the other side is you have them in an enclosed area where the blast effect of a bomb inside an enclosed area is more lethal. So these are constant trade-offs,” she said.
She also called for a dose of realism: “You have to come to grips with the idea in a free and open society and public spaces, they’re never 100 percent secure. We can take measures to mitigate these risks, but you’re never going to get it to zero,” Townsend said in the radio interview.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Fredrick Kunkle