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Give Government Necessary Tools For Security

By Edwin Feulner

This summer, millions of Americans will pass through O'Hare airport. If you're among them, you'll get a firsthand look at our country's airport security measures. So as you take off your shoes or open your laptop for inspection, ask yourself: Are we really taking the right steps to prevent another terrorist attack?

Sure, there's more activity at the airport. Instead of answering simplistic questions about whether or not we packed our own bags, we're forced to throw away fingernail clippers and any bottle larger than 3 ounces. But we all know stopping terrorists isn't that easy.

In recent years, authorities have broken up dozens of terrorist plots and detained scores of would-be attackers. Yet airport security triggered none of these arrests. Instead, they came after solid police work.

For instance, earlier this month a plot to attack JFK airport was stopped thanks to a joint effort by the FBI, local law enforcement, the intelligence community, the Department of Homeland Security and international allies. As the Transportation Security Administration says on its Web site, "This coordinated effort shows once again that the best way to stop terrorist attacks is to break them up before they become operational."

That's certainly true. Our overall homeland security today is good, and the fact that we've gone more than 5½ years without a terrorist attack on American soil is no accident. But to stay ahead of our enemies, we'll need to do far more.

First, we need to make sure our investigators have all the tools they need. The USA Patriot Act has been attacked by journalists and politicians alike, as has the National Security Agency's Terrorist Surveillance Program. Then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid bragged, prematurely it turned out, in 2005 that his party had "killed the Patriot Act," for example. But less than a year later, these programs proved critical in allowing U.S. and British officials to break up a ring plotting to destroy trans-Atlantic flights.

The success of that investigation proved it's possible to stop terrorists while protecting civil liberties. In the end, the TSP (which allows the feds to listen in on terrorist communications) was far less intrusive than the average airport security line.

Meanwhile, to improve service in airports and make us safer, it's time to make screeners private, not federal employees.

Federally funded studies have found no evidence that performance is better today than it was before the TSA put its own screeners into airports. Washington has spent billions of dollars to "stand up" TSA, but all that's happened is that the workload has been shifted from the private sector to government screeners, who perform the same tasks at a greater cost. Almost every country that has experimented with government-employee screeners has eventually privatized the job again. Now it's our turn.

Finally, so we'll know who is boarding planes, we need the REAL ID program to help states issue secure ID cards, such as driver's licenses. The program's been held up because of privacy concerns. But the law doesn't increase government access to personal information. It actually adds privacy protections by requiring more security and background checks for government employees who handle personal data. (It certainly isn't the "national ID card" some accuse it of being.)

Most of what happens at our nation's airports is theater. Passengers go along with the act, because it makes us feel like we're really making a difference. That's harmless, but it's only a small part of what needs to be done. We also must make sure our government has all the tools it needs to protect our civil liberties and protect us from terrorist attacks.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation and co-author of the new book “Getting America Right.”

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