Rolling Stone on 1970s Airport Security

While conducting some research on Leon Russell I managed to come across a gem of a Rolling Stone article from February of 1972. In response to the destruction of four airliners in 1970 by Palestinian guerrillas, Richard Nixon implemented an anti-hijacking program which Rolling Stone panned as ineffective and setting “a dangerous precedent for future violations of two basic constitutional freedoms–freedom to travel and freedom from unreasonable search.”

The article details the “one-two-three model” of airport security that is nothing compared to today’s full body scanners. The process included behavioral profiling (a profile which wasn’t released because it would endanger national security) and magnetometers. A person was only suppose to be subject to search if they both matched the behavior profile (of a hijacker) and set off the metal detector, but Rolling Stone argued the process subjected those who “look freaky” (i.e. long haired hippie types) to unreasonable searches.

If the behavioral profiles were not enough to send those in the early-70s over the edge, Rolling Stone stated that the magnetometers were ripe for exploitation. If an agent wanted to search you all they had to do was sent the magnetometer to high sensitivity and it’d detect even the slightest degree of metal. One “long-haired” UPI reporter wearing a denim jacket, boots and a work T-shirt ended up subjected to a grilling by agents when his cameras set off the detectors. Not having a driver’s license on him (“I told them I don’t carry a wallet because I’m tired of giving it to muggers. My driver’s license expired two years ago and I don’t need it to get on the subway”) the reporter ended up showing the agents a press pass and told them, “Call my editor and I’ll write a piece about it in the morning.” Passengers technically had the right to refuse search, but according to one passenger, agents told him, “You don’t mind if I search you, huh? We do this for everyone.”

After discussing the constitutional issues related to the searches the article turns to the practical issues. One former agent, who quit because “it was a menace not only to my own health but to anyone who rides in aircraft with marshals,” stated, “You wouldn’t believe some of the people riding around on airlines with guns.” Not only were agents poorly trained, but their effectiveness was, at best, “psychological deterrents” that cost 55 million and maybe prevented three hijackings.1 One passenger even tested the system and managed to get on a plane with a Mace bomb, a nine-inch hunting knife, a pair of huge shears, and quantities of acid and speed, among other items. The passenger was also drunk, sweating and nervous, arrived late, shouted at the ticket agent, and berated a flight attendant with questions about hijacking. When asked why he was able to fly, he was told he “passed the profile.”

In the end the program did little to improve airline security, but did increase the hazards of flying with drugs (538 arrests out of 1926 in 1971 were for drug-related issues). In response Rolling Stone offered some advice for flyers, the best of which stated if a passenger absolutely needed to carry drugs, they should carry it on their person as, “The law guards you against frisking more closely than against searching your luggage.”

The article ends with a quote by Jim Sutherland, an aide to Representative Claude Peppers of Florida, who said, “I never heard a passenger protest. Americans always talk about other people as being indolent or docile, but we’re the most docile people in the world. We’ll do whatever we’re told and we’ll get in line for anything.”

From: Freiberg, Peter. “Airport Intrigue: Fed Sleuths are Watching You.” Rolling Stone, February 3, 1972, 1, 12-14.

  1. There were 27 attempted hijackings in 1971, the first year of the program, the same as in 1970. Of the 27, 17 were successful in 1970 while only 14 succeeded in 1971. 

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