Scanners are a distraction, the security answer lies elsewhere

THE more we discover about the plans, such as they are, to install full-body scanners in airports across the UK, the more the initiative appears to demonstrate a worrying tendency towards "something must be done", knee-jerk government, rather than calm, rational decision- making by the Prime Minister.

Gordon Brown announced his intention to press ahead with the introduction of the body scanners in a television interview on Sunday, which was due to concentrate on Labour's recent difficult period in government, so there must be a suspicion at least that the Prime Minister was seeking to divert attention from his domestic political problems.

Even if he was not doing so, it is clear from the reaction by airport operator BAA that Mr Brown had, at best, jumped the gun and surprised the authorities by making his announcement which, as this newspaper pointed out yesterday, pre-empted a security review which the Prime Minister had ordered after the attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253. It is significant that, pressed for more detail yesterday, Mr Brown accepted there was no way to be certain that the scanner devices would be completely effective, though he stressed that a government's first duty was to protect the security of the people of this country to whom it answers.

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The Prime Minister is right in that respect, the problem is whether the government he leads has made the right decision to protect our security. There is a growing body of evidence that it has not done so.

A number of experts – including Conservative MP Ben Wallace, who is a former security executive and army officer – believe that, had these body scanners been in place before the Northwest Airlines attack, they would not have detected the explosives that the alleged bomber took on board the plane.

Mr Wallace, it might be argued, has a political axe to grind, but he is just one of a number of voices who fear that ministers have adopted the wrong anti-terrorism strategy.

There is a large amount of evidence, much of it from Israel, that suggest that the best method of preventing attacks on airlines is to have good intelligence on potential passengers, the process known as profiling.

As our columnist Allan Massie argues today, there are those who say that profiling is discriminatory, as people from a certain background and religion will be singled out by this process.

But if most terrorists come from a particular background, then it is incumbent upon our government – and the security services who answer to it – to identify them and to use all means at their disposal to avert potential terrorist attacks. This may be an uncomfortable truth, but it is one which must be faced.

The logical conclusion is that, instead of measures that will inconvenience air travellers but with little additional security benefit, the government should order an increase in intelligence gathering and profiling as this is a more effective way of fighting the evil of terrorism.