The Latest TSA Embarrassment

TSA Checkpoint

June 9th, 2015

THIS WILL BE BRIEF, because there’s little that I might say about TSA that I haven’t said already, multiple times. Over the past dozen or so years, particularly during my tenure as a columnist at Salon, I’ve blogged (which is to say whined, ranted, and vented) about airport security more than any other topic. If you’re new to this site or you need a refresher, the points expressed in this essay, a version of which also appears in my book, sum things up pretty well.

Little about the recent TSA scandal surprises me. I found the story boring, frankly. Are we supposed to be shocked or outraged to learn that guards failed to detect contraband that was smuggled through checkpoints in tests? On the contrary, this is exactly what we should expect. Of course guards are going to fail when you’ve assigned them an impossible and unsustainable task: the detection and confiscation of every conceivable weapon, from screwdrivers to automatic firearms, from more than two million air travelers every single day of the week. Until the screening process is rationalized and streamlined, it is doomed to such embarrassments. Do the failures highlight the incompetence of individual screeners, or are they are a ringing indication that the entire system is broken?

Furthermore, our obsession with “weapons,” be they real or perceived, continues to be wasteful and self-defeating. The September 11th hijackers relied not on weaponry, but on the element of surprise. What they took advantage of was not a weakness in airport security, but a weakness — a loophole — in our mindset: our understanding and expectations of what a hijacking was, and how one was likely to unfold, based on years of precedent. That the men possessed boxcutters, knives, mace, or whatever devices they brought with them, was all but irrelevant. They were dependent on surprise, not on hardware. In any case, a potentially dangerous weapon can be fashioned out of just about anything, including countless items found on commercial planes. Even a child could make a deadly knife from, say, a shattered first class dinner plate wrapped with some masking tape. Yet here we are, fifteen years on, still rummaging through roll-aboards for hobby knives and scissors. And let’s not get started on the soda bottles and four-ounce tubes of toothpaste.

Ultimately, it’s not weapons that bring down planes, it’s terrorists that do, and we need to come up with a more effective way of screening people themselves rather than their luggage. We need to get past the idea that every single person who flies is a potential terrorist. I understand the weaknesses of passenger profiling and the value of a strategy that subjects everybody to equal scrutiny. It’s a nice idea. But it does not and can not work in a system as massive as ours. Racial or ethnic profiling is not the answer, but some form of risk-based passenger assessment is needed. Would it be perfect? Not at all. Would it be better than what we have? Absolutely. TSA’s PreCheck program is an excellent step in that direction.

Some form of baggage screening, also, will always be required, but the focus should be on two things: firearms and bombs. It’s true that guns were among the items sneaked through in the latest tests, but perhaps if screeners weren’t burdened with so much other nonsense, they’d be better at finding the truly dangerous items. And with respect to bombs, remember that explosives in checked luggage pose an equal or greater threat than anything smuggled aboard in carry-ons. It was bombs in the underfloor holds that brought down Pan Am 103, UTA 772, Air India 182, and so on. Have we become so hyper-focused on carry-ons that we’re neglecting the graver threat? To that end, I recommend redeploying TSA staff from the front lines on the concourse to the parts of the airport we don’t normally see, for a more thorough scanning of checked luggage and cargo.

And lastly, let’s face it, there will always be a way for a determined and clever enough saboteur to bypass whatever physical safeguards we have in place. It’s the job of law enforcement and other government entities, not the job of airport screeners, to prevent and break up plots in the planning stages, stopping attackers before they get to the airport.

We will never be a hundred percent safe, and our system will never be perfect. But it can be and ought to be better than it is today.


An expanded version of this essay appears in the author’s book.


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16 Responses to “The Latest TSA Embarrassment”
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  1. MW says:

    I agree that obsessing over very minor risks is counterproductive in passenger screening.

    The case of the underwear bomber is a prime example of how passenger screening does, sometimes make us safer. He got through screening without problems, but had ineffectual detonation method because he didn’t think he could have got a proper detonator through.

    The screening very seldom (does anyone know of a single case?) stop plots at the checkpoint. It raises the bar for competence in would-be terrorists, and requires them to come up with more complex plots, which also gives more opportunity for intelligence to find them first.

    Psychologically, it is a real problem expecting people to spot gun parts when only one bag in tens or hundreds of thousands contains them. The human mind is just very poor at this job. If the people viewing the carry-on x-rays were separated from the checkpoint, the images could easily be presented with many ‘salted’ images containing gun parts – if one bag in 100 is a positive, the mind gets much better at noticing them.

  2. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    Recently, Tom Bodett of the “we’ll leave the light on for you” fame, was on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and he mentioned the time TSA took a tube of toothpaste that originally held 8 oz., but had about two doses left. It was entirely rolled up and clearly held less than an ounce, but, because the tube indicated it was an 8 oz. tube, even though clearly not full, he had to toss it “or he could mail it to himself.”

    This sort of thing is not the TSA looking for “too many things” or not having focus. It the result of petty people given some power over others.

  3. I. Mizrahi says:

    Just today (June 19) we have learned that two men sneaked into the landing gear bay of a British Airways widebody jet flying from Johannesburg to London. As the plane approached the runway at LHR and opened its landing gear doors, one of the stowaways fell on the roof of a London office building and died. The other man managed to get to the ground with the plane and survived. A similar incident happened a year or so ago in California, too. Here we are talking about airport security when it seems that it’s getting easier by the day to breach it in various ways.

  4. Stacey says:

    Is the mail and/or the freight that is loaded onto a plane scanned? Because I can send a package via Delta Dash to anywhere they fly, and not have to be on board the plane, as with luggage. Just wondering.

  5. Eirik says:

    So if the security system is really that bad, why doesnt it happen all the time? I mean hijackings, bombs on board and so on.
    Maybe the terrorist threat is hyped up? The media keep telling us there are thousands, tens of thousands (or whatever), that wants to kill us and blow our planes up. They spend billions of dollars on security and surveillance, and still they say the system can be easily defeated. Yet, it does not happen.
    Why dont anyone dare to ask this question; are we paranoid?

    • Mo says:

      I have had this health insurance plan for years, it is probably waaaay more than I need. Zero deductibles, and the guy who sold it to me said I could even probably get in to see a doctor with it someday if I needed to. Then he drove away in his Rolls Royce and I never saw him again. I didn’t check on which doctors, but darn it if I haven’t gotten sick since the guy sold it to me. Since this insurance plan is obviously working, I’ll continue to pay the premiums.

      With apologies for the example, this stuff didn’t happen all the time before! Successful plots used to be rare. They still are. Does that mean TSA is making a difference? Heck if I know, but people tend to be impressed by the show and most will tell you it does actually make them FEEL safer even it isn’t doing anything. Very few people get elected by being SOFT on national security. So on it goes.

  6. Mike Scanlan says:

    The entire TSA problem can be summed up with a single sentence:

    Until we stop screening for objects and start screening for people, there is no such thing as security.

    • jms says:

      America absolutely is screening for people — the agency that is doing it is called the NSA. But as much as Americans hate the TSA, it ends up that they don’t really like this either.

      Over the past several years, I have frequently read articles and blog posts giving the opinion that the government should put more emphasis on intelligence and less on taking away everyone’s scissors. I absolutely see their point… but when it was revealed that the government actually WAS pouring substantial resources into intelligence, some of these same commentators were the first to condemn it. (Another case in point: the controversial no-fly-list program, which is less well known but has been the subject of many articles and court cases over the past couple years.)

      My point is — be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.

  7. Chris says:

    Great points in this article. Here’s another article (oldie, but goodie) written from an expert in safety, that makes very similar points.

    (not sure if I have to really warn about this in this day and age, but some strong language lives in that article)

  8. Gemma says:

    Are you saying that the luggage is not scanned somehow??? Because I took it as a given that it is.

    • Patrick says:

      It is, but I reckon it could be scanned more thoroughly.

      • Rod says:

        One has to wonder whether people who’ve been obsessed with carry-on liquids for the past decade would know what to scan for anyway.
        Possibly “sniff” as well as scan.
        Then there’s the question of access to baggage areas and the aircraft themselves, something you’ve often mentioned.

        • Yo Moer says:

          To that comment about being too focused on liquids. IIRC in another test some time ago, they were able to pass ‘fake’ bomb thru TSA security because they were to focused on water bottles. They picked up the water bottle and failed to notice a fricking bomb right next to it.

  9. rich says:

    You are SO right about the importance of more-effective screening of people and checked luggage. Wouldn’t it be better, e.g., to have passengers and ALL of their luggage go through security screening together? That way, any irregularity–even with luggage to be checked–would be addressed with the passenger present and accountable for it.

    This would be a major and costly change. But perhaps expedited, pre-TSA luggage-checking could still be allowed for people who have passed the TSA background-check process.

    • Rod says:

      As Patrick points out, we have NOT avoided plots. To my knowledge, two of the pre-911 disasters he mentions were caused not by jihadis but by tyrants who habitually threw jihadis into prison, and the third by lunatic Sikhs.

      The point being that you can profile, etc. till the cows come home, there will always be someone smart enough to get through.
      Which is why good intelligence will beat good profile/search any day.