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Daniel Rubin: What the experts say on improving travel safety

Have you seen the Transportation Security Administration calendars? Twelve X-rays of a pinup in heels. How about the bumper stickers? TSA: Touchin', Squeezin', Arrestin'.

Have you seen the Transportation Security Administration calendars? Twelve X-rays of a pinup in heels.

How about the bumper stickers? TSA: Touchin', Squeezin', Arrestin'.

Now that we're having a good laugh about the new security procedures, maybe we can get serious about making airplane travel safe.

I spent the week talking to people who think about antiterror tactics for a living - congressional staffers, an ACLU official who spent 16 years with the FBI, the former head of Homeland Security for New York, a retired police official, a former cargo shipper.

They've got some strong views about what needs to get better.

For those politicos who pine for El Al airlines' aggressive profiling, my experts say pulling people out of line because of their looks, religion, or ethnicity wouldn't fly here.

For its behavior-detection program, the TSA has borrowed from the Israeli airline. Specialists look for expressions and actions that indicate stress, fear, or deception to flag passengers for extra scrutiny.

The program's science has come under fire, most prominently from the Government Accountability Office, which in May questioned why the TSA launched the program without proof that it works.

The GAO noted that not one terrorist had been stopped by behavior-detection officers (although the TSA countered that one man in Orlando was found transporting parts for a pipe bomb).

More troubling, the GAO found, suspected terrorists moved 23 times through U.S. airports where behavior-detection officers work.

Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman, said her agency keeps refining its program, working "with renowned behavioral psychologists, scientists, the academic community, law enforcement, and other experts in the field of behavioral analysis."

I wrote in August about a Maryland woman screened in Philadelphia. The TSA and police rifled through Kathy Parker's belongings, and an officer called her husband to see if she was running off with his checks. She wasn't. Last month the ACLU filed suit in federal court on her behalf.

A TSA behavior specialist had found her reactions to be suspicious, the spokeswoman told me. Parker said she became nervous in line when she bent to consolidate her bags and felt the TSA officer was looking down her blouse.

Mike German, the former FBI counterterrorism agent who joined the ACLU as a policy counsel, calls the behavior program as ill-considered as enhanced pat-downs and the full-body scanners.

He questioned whether the technology would have caught the Nigerian passenger accused of carrying plastic explosives and liquid accelerant to blow up a Detroit-bound plane last December.

"It's the worst kind of security," German said, "the kind that gives us a false sense of security."

The money for such blunt-instrument programs should be spent instead to track specific threats, German said. "Then those investigations will probably be more effective in getting to the people who would do harm long before they get to an airport."

U.S. Rep. John L. Mica (R., Fla.), who stands to take over the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has a similar view. "Treating every passenger as a suspect or a criminal is an inefficient use of scarce resources," Mica wrote last month to TSA Administrator John S. Pistole.

Mica called for keener intelligence, smarter threat analysis, better training for document checkers, and use of biometric technology, such as fingerprint and facial recognition software.

To sow terror, ever-patient al-Qaeda militants have to be successful just once. Their latest focus on cargo has triggered calls for increased scrutiny of packages.

Deirdre Walker, a former assistant police chief of Maryland's Montgomery County, says we remove our shoes and skimp on shampoo only to sit on top of "tons of unscreened and unsafe cargo."

Since August, the United States has screened all cargo in passenger planes leaving domestic airports. But screeners don't check every parcel on cargo planes or arriving from abroad.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) has matched a sister bill in the House that urges the examination of every piece of cargo traveling over U.S. airspace. The cargo industry says that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

"I don't know if it's even doable without severely disrupting the express business model," said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Air Forwarders Association.

What's needed, he said, is intelligence gathering, information sharing, and instant communication once a problem is detected - the multilayered approach favored by Michael Balboni, former homeland-security chief for New York state.

"Wouldn't it be great if, when someone showed up at the airport, the person at the check-in kiosk knew who they were?" Balboni asked. "When they scan their license or passport, they'd pop up if they're on a bad-guy database."

Isn't that Orwellian? "Yes," he says. "We're already there."

Only then should they receive pat-downs and X-rays, he said. "If you're a grandmother from Topeka with no hits on the watch list and you fly every week, why the hell are you taking off your shoes?"

That brings us full circle, back to the joker who came up with mock TSA bumper stickers. My favorite?

"Don't worry, my hands are still warm from the last guy."