All this airport security is utterly useless

All those ritual checks distract from the intelligence work that actually catches terrorists

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

Here we go again: another summer of airport fun. This year it’s been announced that due to a ‘heightened’ security threat, any Brit attempting a holiday abroad will be subject to an even grimmer ordeal than usual: body searching, shoe removing, laptop searching and endless grinding queueing. Expect it to take twice as long to get through security, an official from the Department of Transport said.

Superficially there are some excellent reasons for all the extra precautions and checks. ‘New intelligence’ from America’s security agencies suggests al-Qa’eda has developed clever explosives that can be soaked into clothing or concealed in human ‘body cavities’, and plastic explosives that masquerade as briefcases and iPads.

But though the threat is genuine, I wonder how effective any of these tedious security checks will actually be; or if anyone in the know really expects them to help save us from attack.

The real enemy of terrorism is not endless and undiscriminating checking, but intelligence, gathered on the ground. A look at past plots thwarted tells you all you need to know. Consider the two cargo bombs sent from Yemen in 2010. One of those packages was examined at East Midlands Airport using specialist officers, sniffer dogs, explosives detectors and multiple X-rays. None of them detected the bomb — but because security services had reliable intelligence that a bomb was being placed on board, they insisted on removing packages and searching them thoroughly, and so the bombs were found.

Even if checking every passenger exhaustively was the right way to thwart terror, why would any serious government issue a press release about it, informing the terrorists that you were on their case and keeping them up to speed on the things you’re looking for? They didn’t do that with Bletchley Park and the Enigma codes. Leaving aside the possibility that our leaders are just plain dim, we must assume their statements are a clever decoy. In that case, everything that we must endure at Stansted and Heathrow is pure ‘security theatre’. This would not be unusual. Much of what passes for ‘security’ and its kissing cousin ‘safety’ is little more than an elaborate show.

You can tell when a country is serious about security. In March 2012 I was standing in the security queue at Ben Gurion Airport, in Israel. I was singled out for some scrutiny. ‘Who are you travelling with?’ the polite official asked. I pointed to my two companions.

My bag was scanned. ‘So, what was your time?’ An odd question, perhaps, but pertinent, considering I had just run the Tel Aviv marathon. ‘Four-twenty. How did you know I ran the marathon?’

‘We can see your medal in the bag,’ the guard said, smiling, swivelling the screen so I could clearly see the big metal disc on the X-ray. ‘Is that a laptop?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Would you like me to take it out and turn it on?’

‘No. That won’t be necessary, Mr Hanlon. Go straight to the gate. Have a nice flight.’ They weren’t interested in my toothpaste, either.

Does this prove anything? No. But I found it interesting that Israel, which endures daily missile barrages from unfriendly neighbours, manages to combine humour and an atmosphere of reassurance and intelligence at its airport, when what we meet here is unblinking, bovine stupidity and rudeness.

Of course the Israelis don’t catch terrorists at check-in. No one does. The American TSA has not detected a single bomb at an American airport since 9/11 (an atrocity, which everyone is at pains not to point out, was accomplished with no bombs at all. None of the visible security measures put in place since 9/11 would have stopped 9/11).

Clever spooks — and Israel’s spooks are very, very clever — catch terrorists long before they reach the airport. If there is a credible threat, we can take it for granted that the front line is not being manned by security officers on £8 an hour at Stansted.

The problem is that the other stuff — the theatre — continues to grow, completely divorced from reality and evidence. Is it useful? Who cares? It’s expedient to announce it, whatever the cost in time and hassle to passengers. Once in place, any security procedure becomes politically difficult to dismantle.

It’s not just at airports that we see this. In the early 1990s a ‘ring of steel’ was erected around the City of London after two IRA truck bombs. It consisted of a series of chicanes at every entry and egress point in the Square mile. Can’t be too careful.

Maybe not, when you have the most successful private army in recent history running around. But the Provisionals have been on ceasefire since 1997. And with weary inevitability, the artery-clogging chicanes and cameras are very much present, if largely unmanned these days. Why?

It turns out there never was a ‘ring of steel’. The whole thing, you see, was a misunderstanding; history has been rewritten. The chicanes and roadblocks were there not to deter terrorists but to — wait for it — create an ‘environmental zone’.

This is cobblers, but it shows why the ring cannot be broken, the gates cannot be unlocked. The fact is, it is never in a politician’s interest to argue for a relaxation of safety and security rules. No one will lose their job for being over-cautious, whereas the penalty for laxity is severe, even if the menace changes or disappears.

Saying the threat has passed is now politically impossible. Ministers knew that the rabies threat from continental Europe was negligible for years before the quarantine laws were finally changed in 2000. No one wanted to be the politician who ‘risked rabies coming to Britain’.

Locked gates annoy, but they do little harm at the ballot box. For example, there is little true security justification to screen passengers on Eurostar trains for knives (you can’t hijack an electric train — and if the Channel Tunnel is a unique target, why are drivers not similarly screened at the Shuttle terminals at Folkestone and Calais?), but who will risk his career pointing this out?

And cost and hassle, time and delay are not the only things at stake here; the real problem with theatre is that it lulls us into a false sense of security. Pointless security measures wave through dangers, as almost happened with the cargo bomb at East Midlands Airport, where the all-clear from all those screening measures led police to declare that the airport should be re-opened. What you really need to know when flying is how to get off a burning plane, but how many of us zone out during the endless safety briefing, packed with unnecessary guff about laptops, mobile phones and ‘personal belongings’?

We have to trust the security forces not to be stupid, I guess, but sometimes you do wonder. During the Olympics in 2012, a gunboat was moored on the Thames and comedy missile launchers erected on East End tower blocks. This was, we were told, to deter a ‘credible’ terror threat.

Few asked what exactly a gunboat was supposed to do against an attack on the Olympic Stadium — start shelling Stratford? Were missiles really supposed to shoot down an airliner streaking across the biggest city in western Europe? And after a threat to bring down transatlantic airliners was identified in early 2003, one response was armoured vehicles at Heathrow. How tanks were supposed to deal with hijacked planes was not explained.

Occasionally you get a politician who sees through the cult. William Whitelaw, we were told, used to meet with senior spooks imploring him, as Home Secretary, to beef up security, to consider the introduction of ID cards, more phone tapping and the like. ‘Nice try, old chaps,’ he would say, pouring the agents another glass of whisky before sending them on their way. How we need a Willie now.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

In the Interest of Safety: The Absurd Rules That Blight our Lives and How We Can Change Them, by Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon, is published by Sphere.

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Show comments
  • will91

    You know, this would be a lot easier If our security services weren’t married to the unhelpful idea that all 7 billion people on planet earth pose an equally viable security threat. Call me Islamophobic, but can anyone honestly say it doesn’t make sense to spend more time checking, a 19 year old, Yemeni exhange student. Than a 90 year old Anglican grandmother from York.

    • Yorkieeye

      Yes, it bring to mind that old chestnut that whilst all Muslims aren’t terrorists at this point in time all terrorists are Muslims.

      • thomasaikenhead

        Er, except all terrorists are not Muslims whether at this point in time or any other for that matter?

        • will91

          I grant you that Muslims do not have a monopoly on every single terrorist act ever committed. But at this moment in history, it is unfortunately Islamic fundamentalism which is of greatest concern, for non-muslims and muslims alike.

        • Yorkieeye

          Name all the other groups threatening British life and limb then please.

          • Ross Parker

            In February 2014 the Real IRA sent seven letter bombs to British Army recruitment offices in south-east England. The following month, a PSNI landrover was hit by an explosively formed projectile in Belfast. A civilian car was also hit by debris, but there were no injuries.

          • Jules Wright


          • Ross Parker

            Pedant, noun: An insult hurled by those experiencing the cognitive dissonance associated with being wrong without believing it possible

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Does the name “Timothy McVeigh” strike a chord?

        • Roger Hudson

          A revenge mass murder is not terrorism, it was not aimed at changing public opinion/action ( the basic aim of terror).

          • Jules Wright

            Well said.

  • Flintshire Ian

    A whole industry has grown up around airport security. Apart from the corporate profits involved, many people living in previously high unemployment areas such as Wythenshawe in Manchester now have jobs on security at the airport. What will happen to them if the government listens to cries such as this one that the airport security emperor has no clothes?

    Manchester is a good example. The massive expansion of the budget airline sector means that security lane expansions are inadequate almost as soon as they are finished and the volume of passengers, plus the attitude problem of many of the security staff, some of whom who are enjoying being on the other end of the aggro for the first time, ever makes the experience lenghty and wearisome.

    And for what benefit? Especially when the obvious target group for screening are treated with kid gloves in case they complain. Take a look next time you go through airport security at the people stopped for extra searching – almost certainly white, middle aged or older and probably male and respectably dressed.

    • nemesis

      If you had any mal intentions towards an aircraft and wanted to get through security without too much hassle- would you dress as a typical muslim or would you pose as a respectable business man or perhaps a priest?

      • Flintshire Ian

        As someone else has commented either on here or close by – not all Muslims are terrorists but all of the terrorists are Muslims.

        • thomasaikenhead

          “… but all of the terrorists are Muslims.”

          No, they are not.

          Do try to stick to the facts!

          • Yorkieeye

            So who else is attempting and threatening British people today? Do stick to reality.

          • Ross Parker

            The Real IRA are still sending letter bombs and aiming projectiles at police cars. I don’t think Muslims are well-represented in their number.

    • Roger Hudson

      Manchester? holiday in the Lake District.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Do a Cartman on security.

  • anncalba

    So we may well all have to show that our phones, cameras, kindles etc, can be switched off. It seems to me that anyone carrying a device that has been modified to become a bomb, will be more than happy to demonstrate his device, blowing himself and those round about him (or her) to smithereens.

  • terence patrick hewett

    El Al has been using the massively successful system of racial profiling for years: involving widely different treatment for different types of passenger and individual questioning of passengers by Israeli staff trained in psychological techniques and unafraid to ask the most intrusive details of the passenger’s recent movements and intentions. Up-to-the-minute specifications of the types of weapons and explosives is provided to staff.

    El Al terminals around the world are patrolled by plain-clothes agents and fully armed police or military personnel who check for explosives, suspicious behaviour and other threats. No ticket without a sticker from the security interrogators will be accepted ­ and particular note is taken of how and where it was purchased.

    At passport control, passengers’ names are checked against information from the
    FBI, Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Scotland Yard, Shin Bet, Interpol
    and French Deuxieme Bureau data bases. All bags are routinely put through a
    decompression chamber simulating pressure once airborne that could trigger

    El Al flights have at least two armed sky marshals sitting randomly among
    passengers: all aircraft are equipped with an Israeli-developed counter-measures system called ‘Flight Guard’ to defend against anti-aircraft missiles: all El Al cockpits have double doors to prevent entry by unauthorised people.

    • thomasaikenhead

      If you think Israeli methods work, have a look at ICTS and tis US subsidiary, Huntleigh, that provided the security at Logan Airport in Boston where two of the 9/11 flights departed.

      • post_x_it

        It’s not just about the methods, it’s about budget as well. The US and UK approach is to employ only semi-literate dimwits on minimum wages who don’t have anywhere near the intellect required to operate to Israeli standards.

    • Michael Hanlon

      Yes, Israeli security is scarily impressive. On one visit, on my return, I was quizzed about a pair of Czech hitchhikers I had picked up in the Negev, on their way to Sharm ….. This was at least a week before and they knew not only my details but theirs. They even knew about a cafe we stopped at for coffee. They got it from the Army check-points you go through of course. Hard to imagine this happening in the UK.

  • Bel-Shammaroth

    When the Tory Party Conference was last held in Birmingham, they placed booms across the canal that runs past the conference centre. Then armed police got into a cute little rubber boat and cruised up and down 100 yards of canal, drinking takeaway coffee, munching doughnuts and looking ever so important. How unfortunate for them if the al-Qaeda submarine ‘al-Ghwash’ had sneaked in from Gas Street Basin!

  • TrulyDisqusted

    Whilst this is terribly un-PC, the scariest people I ever meet at UK airport’s are usually carrying out the security screening. Are “no UK born grandparents and a poor command of the English language ” prerequisites or were Blair and the one-eye’d MacBeth just ‘aving a large again?

    Yes, I know this is Britain and I know we’re all terribly inclusive now, but does this new found inclusiveness need to include almost exclusively hiring airport security staff from the same demographic that is responsible for all of the world’s airline hijacking and bombing perpetrators?

    Can anyone find me the number of Muslim Security Screening Agents in the employ of El AL?

    • bugshead

      Indeed, it is truly worrying that the majority of the security staff are from the 3rd world. As indeed it is depressing to see so many Indians manning the passport control desks on arrival at Heathrow and Gatwick. Most of my international friends think that they landed in the wrong country.

      • Ross Parker

        Nice to know that unfiltered bigotry still exists.

  • Tom M

    I don’t know I agree with all of that.
    Airport security, enhanced or otherwise can have little or no effect on counter terrorism I suggest. It’s not the same people doing the work. I’m sure MI5 or 6 don’t drop everything and nip down to Heathrow and start searching people if there’s a threat around.
    Further if there is seen to be care taken over who or what gets onto an aircraft then this would have the tendency to deter any potential terrorist. Being caught at the check in would be a bit of an anticlimax for a suicidal jihadist I think. They would want better than a 50/50 chance of success for their credibility’s sake.
    All of the missiles, gunboats and tanks are as you say pointless in the face of a genuine terrorist attack. They are however good publicity for the population’s security guardians and rear-end cover for politicians.

  • berosos_bubos

    Photo id now required for children on internal flights. Now completely stuffed.

  • Roger Hudson

    El Al had good security when BA still allowed smoking.
    The article is right, security needs to interact with the traveller personally, high-tec is relevant in places but the mass scanning is a confidence trick, literally.

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  • bugshead

    Very good article. It has been a long time coming but I hope the media everywhere will now start to question more acutely this US driven obsession with all matters security related. The little Hitler mentality and the crass bovine stupidity of most airline security staff at Heathrow and other major airports beggars belief. As for the attitude of the security and immigration officials at US airports, it is quite simply disgusting. And we all know that it is a complete waste of f……. time

  • Waveform

    Airports have become an adventure playground for fat perverts in security uniforms who enjoy groping total strangers.

  • Shakes Sphere

    Despite conceited claims by those opposing liberty, we cannot change our morals, customs, and traditions without risking irreparable damage to the civilization that relies upon them.

  • Tomas Newtham

    If free markets are to work well, respectable moral and legal principles must be in place to guide separate competitors in the marketplace.

  • wabbit1

    £8 per hour? Is that all Stansted security get? Poor buggers. LHR staff are on £15.12 phour (not including the 3 bonuses they all got last year performance, gain share etc)