Leading article: We need intelligence, not scanners

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The line between reassuring the public on terror and imposing too great an inconvenience on their movements has always been a hazy and fluctuating one. At times of immediate threat, people understand the need for precautions and are willing to submit themselves to considerable restrictions on their ability to move freely. When the threat seems to recede, however, there is considerably more irritation, and civil liberties concern, at the rules and monitoring.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attempt to explode a bomb on a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day has certainly aroused the demand that the political leaders "do something" to reassure passengers over their safety. But it has also sharpened the debate between those who argue that prevention is best served by more and better scanning equipment at the airports and those who feel that picking up potential bombers is better served by more sophisticated "profiling" of suspects rather than blanket surveillance measures.

The British Prime Minister has responded to the clamour for greater safety measures by announcing that he intends every British airport to be full equipped with body scanners as soon as practicably possible. The United States has reacted more directly and immediately by instituting a list of 14 nations, including Nigeria, Yemen, Sudan, Iran and Syria, whose citizens can now expect to be subjected to fuller searches at American airports.

There are many who would agree with that approach here, despite the fears – well-founded from the experience of police stop-and-search – that picking on particular groups in this way would lead to racial profiling and greatly exacerbate tensions within the community whose support society needs if it is ever to get on top of home intelligence. In the end, it is the racial argument that has seemed to sway the Government into the kind of generalised surveillance that includes everybody rather than pick on the few.

That may be politically adroit, but it has its limitations. Airport body scanners are intrusive and slow and they are unreliable when it comes to picking up the kinds of liquids and plastics used not only by Abdulmutallab but also the planners of the 2006 airliner liquid bomb plot, or indeed the July bombings in London in 2005.

What knee-jerk reaction must not be allowed to do, however, is to take attention way from the paramount importance of intelligence in terror prevention. None of the bombing outrages committed or attempted to date came entirely without some kind of warning on the intelligence radar. They could have been prevented if there had been better co-ordination of information both between security agencies both domestically and internationally. All the scanners and profiling in the world will not make up for that basic deficiency.