Flying in Europe? Don't fear a pat-down

BRUSSELS, Belgium — “Don’t touch my junk” probably wouldn’t translate well into all 23 official languages of the European Union.

But Europeans don’t need a rallying cry to resist what the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) calls “enhanced pat-downs” and aggrieved travelers are calling “government-approved groping” — it’s not happening in Europe.

Despite escalating warnings about terror attacks in or originating in Europe — Belgium arrested almost two dozen suspected terrorists this week, for example — none of the 27 EU governments have instructed airport officials to employ extra-rigorous pat-downs on travelers who set off alarms on the normal metal detectors or opt out of full-body scans in the few airports where they’re used. When European air travelers do have to endure a pat-down, apparently they don’t complain about it.

“A pat-down in Europe is quite discreet,” said Emmanuel Vincart of Belgium’s Commission for the Protection of Privacy. “[Screeners] would never touch your genitals!” The European Consumer Center also said it has “never” received a complaint about pat-downs.

That doesn’t mean the European Union isn’t concerned about possible gaps in security. This week EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom identified weaknesses in the bloc’s longstanding approaches to threats in the areas of organized crime, terrorism, cyber security, border management and crises and disasters.

The commissioner complained about Europe’s “silo mentality,” referring to the reluctance among EU member states to share intelligence data and resources with each other, even on issues that are obviously cross-border concerns. In the coming months, Malmstrom said, she will propose more sharing of intelligence and EU-wide recognition of legal orders such as asset seizures, among the 41 items she’s recommending for action over the next four years.

Malmstrom will also explore the possibility of creating a European “Terrorist Finance Tracking Program,” modeled after the American system of combing through banking information to identify suspicious activity that could point to the funding of violent plots. The program is not popular among Europeans.Members of the European Parliament, who used their power to temporarily block EU coordination with Washington,were not persuaded by U.S. officials s that innocent citizens’ data was not being isolated and used in some other way. Malmstrom, however, is a proponent of sharing this data with the U.S. and would like Europe to have its own capacity.

Malmstrom’s proposals would greatly enhance the bloc’s crime-fighting abilities, said Tim Jones, chief advisor to EU Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove. Jones explained that problems in coordination were “essentially written into the DNA of the system” before the Lisbon Treaty reconfigured and streamlined EU operations on Jan. 1, 2010. Before that, Jones said, “home affairs” and “foreign policy” problems were approached with totally different mechanisms and the tools allocated for each so-called “pillar” could not even be shared between them.

Jones was optimistic about the potential for EU-level counterterrorism coordination and other anti-crime efforts.

“Now it’s possible,” he said, “and the challenge is to make the possible real.”

But opinions on what makes counterterrorism policy effective differ from country to country, and even more so from Washington to Brussels, as air travelers’ divergent experiences illustrate. Asked why security measures would differ so much between the United States and Europe, which share intelligence including direct threat information, e Belgian counterterrorism official Thomas Baekelandt shrugged. “It’s all a matter of how much risk a government wants to take,” he explained.

“The people defining policy — what kind of pat-downs you’ll have — are experts,” he said. But, he added, “they are politically checked and the political checks and balances are different in Europe than in the U.S.”

Todd Curtis, an American aviation safety analyst and founder of the travel-information site AirSafe (, said he’s taken a good long look at how Europe and the U.S. have responded to their threat levels. Curtis said he finds the Europeans’ more discreet approach to terror surveillance “more compatible with a risk-management approach that accepts that these kinds of threats can be reduced and controlled, but not eliminated.” The importance of that practical posture, he said, is that “if someone does take out an airplane or kill people in some kind of attack, it would not be a political disaster.”

Curtis said the American goal “to stop 100 percent of the attacks 100 percent of the time” has given birth to the much-maligned enhanced pat-down, because such an unforgiving aim justifies — to security planners — whatever extreme measures will achieve it.

Many of those involved in aviation security will spend Thanksgiving weekend watching not just football, parades and an endless array of food, but also the public backlash against the pat-down. Curtis predicted it might be the TSA and not the public that has to give in this time, something that would surely leave many travelers thankful.