TSA, RIP?

BY DAN ALBAN

Government agencies tend to accumulate like barnacles on a ship’s hull – once created, they’re pretty hard to remove. Journalist Jonathan Rauch described this petrification of bureaucracy as “demosclerosis” in his book of the same title. So it’s not every day that a government agency passes on to that happy regulating ground in the sky.

But last Friday, news reports revealed that Admiral David Stone, the director of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), was stepping down and that the incompetent, mismanaged, wasteful & inefficient, cost doubling, under-trained & corner-cutting, repeatedly failure-prone, safety illusion creating, performance mismonitoring, screener certification bungling, threat ignoring and internally miscommunicating, rights trampling, privacy violating (& cover up promoting), sexual harassment promoting, thievery enabling, hypocritical security side-stepping, long line creating, nail clipper, scissor, pocket knife/tool, tiny toy gun and cigarette lighter-confiscating, peanut butter sandwich thieving, elderly & disabled harassing, on the job sleeping, air marshal hemorrhaging, employment discrimination facilitating, employee health hazard creating, and just generally awful1 Transportation Security Administration may soon be a thing of the past, or will at least have a much reduced role. As you can tell, I’m heartbroken. But I only wonder why this hasn’t happened sooner.

TSA was created in November 2001 with a goal of securing our nation’s (primarily airline) transportation, largely by replacing private airport security screeners with “fully trained, professional” federal screeners. TSA went about this, of course, by hiring a private company, TCS Pearson, to hire over 50,000 screeners, and by hiring a pair of private defense contractors, Lockheed and Boeing, to train passenger and luggage screeners respectively. Yeah, that sure showed those lousy private screeners that the federalistas were taking things over.

The 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which created TSA, established a deadline of Nov. 19, 2002 for TSA to federalize all airport screeners and a deadline of Dec. 31, 2002 for examining all checked bags for explosives. Miraculously, TSA met the first deadline (but failed the second). How? Because price was no object; TSA blew through its original $2.4 billion budget like a craps player on a bad bender, and was requesting an additional $4.4 billion by the summer of 2002. Then-chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY) put it simply: “The meeting of that deadline has cost a lot of money that it should not have.”

Not only was there no cost control, but TSA wasn’t necessarily spending to enhance security; they were just desperately trying to meet the Nov. 19 deadline. As Rep. John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation, said in a 2003 hearing, “We’ve created a multi-billion-dollar mirage. You can have 200,000 screeners, whether they be private or public, and we’re still at risk. TSA has done a good job of ramping up an army of screeners. They have not done a good job in developing technology.”

In fact, TSA has repeatedly failed its own security tests. In 2002, TSA documents revealed that their screeners were missing 24% of mock weapons in undercover tests, with some airports experiencing a 50% failure rate. LAX, one of our nation’s largest and most important airports, had a 41% failure rate. But surely they’ve had a chance to improve since then, right? Nope. Last summer, Federal baggage screeners at Newark’s Liberty International Airport had a 25% failure rate – missing 81 mock bombs and weapons out of 327 tests conducted over the summer. They even failed when they realized they were being tested, as screeners had begun to recognize the testers but still failed to find smuggled weapons. With the reports of dozens of journalists, undercover government agents, and even college students successfully smuggling weapons onto planes after 9/11, one wonders if this is all a big ruse by TSA to convince terrorists that they’re more in danger from armed passengers now than ever before.

So if TSA sucks at actually keeping weapons off of planes, what exactly are we paying all this money for them to do? Author James Bovard answers this question when he refers to TSA’s method as “Security as Theater” in a critical article published last February. Basically, the TSA is just there to make us feel safe – they enact an elaborate stage play involving standing in different lines, stripping off some of your clothes, putting your laptop in a separate bin, full body frisks behind screens, and neat-o security gadgets with buzzes and alarms and blinking lights to obscure the fact that they’re not really all that more effective than their private predecessors or that stupid 3-question quiz. (“Have you been in control of this bag at all times?” Well, no – my dad carried it to the taxi for me and then it was in the trunk of the taxi, where anyone could have been removing my underwear and stuffing it full of plastique!) But at least that quiz had the virtue of costing almost nothing and taking very little time.

But I’m not just upset about TSA because they’re expensive and incompetent and ineffective. Hell, I expect that of my government agencies – I’d be worried if they weren’t hemorrhaging money on useless projects like a famous billionaire with several bankrupt casinos in Atlantic City. That’s what government agencies are supposed to do with our tax dollars – and as far as I’m concerned, wasting their budgets on hookers for long-time civil servants instead of spending the money to violate people’s rights isn’t such a bad thing. Political humorist Will Rogers once said, “Thank God we don’t get all the government we pay for,” and I think he was onto something there. No, I’m pissed off about TSA because of how abusive and arrogant they are, how they use intimidation tactics against private citizens who pose no threat to anyone, how they routinely violate constitutional rights and then threaten to expel or arrest travelers who simply request that their rights be respected, and how they refuse to justify or explain their procedures or answer to any accountability because it would “compromise security.”

My own bad experience with TSA was a pretty minor one in comparison to the many horror stories you can find by scanning the news archives. I was returning back to HLS last winter break from my parent’s home in Idaho. At the Boise airport, I approached the security area and began taking off my coat and belt and assembling my gear in bins. The not-so-friendly TSA officer ordered me (and I do mean ordered – normally they just ask) to remove my run-of-the-mill brown leather shoes so that they didn’t set of the alarm. I replied that the shoes shouldn’t cause any problem – they had already been through several airport security checkpoints without incident, including the one at Logan just a few days earlier – and asked if I could go through with them on. He paused and gave me a funny look and then said that I could, so I proceeded through the metal detector, which didn’t go off.

Agent Friendly then immediately ordered me to take off the shoes and said he’d have to do a full body search on me because I’d worn the shoes through the detector and my shoes “fit a profile.” (They’re the same boring leather shoes I wear today and there’s nothing at all exciting about them – no large heel, no odd-looking catches, nothing.) I protested – hadn’t he just told me I could go through with them on? Tough stuff, kid, the shoes fit a profile. What exactly about my shoes made them fit a profile? It was confidential and could “compromise security.” When I refused to be searched and asked to speak to a supervisor, I was first told that they could keep me from flying today if I caused any trouble. Then the supervisor came over to tell me the same thing, and that I could also be arrested for interfering with a federal officer, and just how could he help me today? He wouldn’t tell
me how my shoes fit a profile either. Well, how would I know what shoes to wear in the future? He wouldn’t help me. How did I know that his screener hadn’t singled me out for harassment because I had challenged his authority when I told him that my shoes hadn’t set off any alarms so far? You guessed it, he wouldn’t tell me because that would “compromise security.” I had to submit to the search or I wouldn’t make it home for 1L finals, so I relented and surrendered my 4th Amendment rights so that I could return to campus and get my gentleman’s B in Property.

Later that day, during a layover in the Midwest, I approached a few TSA agents manning a security checkpoint without any passengers and politely asked if they thought my shoes would be ok for air travel or if they might “fit a profile” and maybe I should wear different shoes next time. All of them told me the shoes looked fine – they didn’t have a thick heel or any odd-looking fixtures – and I had nothing to worry about. So much for “compromising security.”

So I guess the big question is: whatever will we do without the hapless TSA, without its budget-blowing spending and Billy Buckner-esque performance failures, without a little security theater performed daily by federal agents to make everybody feel safe? Well, a return to private screeners isn’t all that hard to imagine – it’s just another form of deregulation, and in this case may not produce a very noticeable difference since TSA out-sources much of its hiring and training anyhow. But at least we won’t have bossy federal agents asserting all sorts of nonsense about compromised security and profiles – nope, we’ll have bossy private screeners instead! Will private screeners do a better job than the TSA? Who knows – the very notion of airport security may be an unsolvable paradox. The only way to keep something truly secure is to keep people out – as soon as you start letting people on planes, you let on security threats. Even if we’re willing to strip people naked and conduct body cavity searches, airplanes still won’t be 100% secure.

Recognizing this reality, I tend to favor the radical suggestion of magician/comic Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller), who suggests that we Make Terrorists Do the Profiling, in his article of the same name, by permitting anyone to carry anything on a plane. Yes, anything: knives, guns, nail clippers, brass knuckles, tweezers, chainsaws, bazookas, cigarette lighters, Martin Scorsese’s Oscar – oh wait, I meant anything real or plausible, not anything deeply deserved but utterly improbable. Basically, the idea is that knowing anyone could be carrying anything on a plane will deter terrorists because they know they’ll meet with armed resistance, rather than passengers stripped of even the smallest pocketknife or deadliest pair of nail clippers. Is this a risky strategy? Sure it is; life is full of risks and we can’t pretend they don’t exist by creating a government agency that pretends to eliminate them with massive spending, spiffy uniforms, high-tech theatrics, and goonish intimidation tactics. Freedom is a risky proposition, there’s no doubt about it. But risk is always relative – how much more risk are we accepting by surrendering our freedom and trusting the TSA overlords to not only protect us from the bad guys, but to not be the bad guys themselves?

Dan Alban is already mentally preparing for the free proctological exam that he’ll be sure to receive – courtesy of TSA – before boarding his next flight..

(1) See http://exparte.powerblogs.com /posts/1112982162.shtml for links explaining each of these adjectives.

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