Straight Talk on the TSA, Paragon of the Creeping Security State

Over the course of the last week the Transportation Security Administration’s new airport security measures have generated a great deal of public outcry and controversy. This bout of public dissatisfaction provides a rare opportunity that should not be wasted. For the first time in nine years Americans are seriously questioning at least one part of the vast security state that has been built up around them. Within the public’s new found skepticism of TSA methods lies the seeds of the entire regime’s destruction. The faults lies not with TSA workers, or even TSA bureaucrats back in Washington: the sins of the TSA are sins of the system. Official explanations and excuses for this system wear thin – Americans finally seem ready to hear some straight talk about the nature of our national security theater.

A good place to begin is with the security procedures that started all the ruckus, the backscatter x-rays (also called “full body scanners” or “nude picture machines”) and enhanced pat downs. Ranging from the ethical to the medical, objections to these procedures are legion. For the moment we shall discount all of this censure and focus on the most utilitarian objection to the new procedures: they do not work. The Independent neatly summarizes the limitations of the new full-body scanners:

If a material is low density, such as powder, liquid or thin plastic – as well as the passenger’s clothing – the millimetre waves pass through and the object is not shown on screen. High- density material such as metal knives, guns and dense plastic such as C4 explosive reflect the millimetre waves and leave an image of the object.

Powder, liquids, and thin plastic – surely those are not the exact materials used by the “underwear bomber” to make his explosive charge? Invasive as they may be, these scanners stand no more chance of capturing future underwear bombers than the metal detectors had of catching the last one. Widely panned by security experts and (foreign) government officials as useless, the full body scanners are undependable to an extreme, having missed bomb components, razor wire, or anything  obscured by a belt or something else made of leather. The backscatters installed at Hamburg have proven themselves so unreliable (mistaking creases and pleats for knifes) that officials have stopped using them entirely, forcing all passengers to go through pat downs before being allowed to board their planes.
One hopes that American airports are not about to follow suit. Given the controversy surrounding the new ‘enhanced’ pat downs it is doubtful they will. Yet even if enhanced pat downs became a mandatory procedure security would be painfully deficient: neither the scanners or the pat downs are capable of searching cavities. Earlier this year a terrorist in Saudi Arabia detonated a bomb that had been inserted into his rectum in an attempted assassination of a Saudi prince; there is no reason bombs of the same sort could not be detonated on an American airplane. Between the mouth, vagina, and anus there is an awful large amount of space to sneak a weapon past TSA security and there is nothing – short of mandatory cavity checks – that the TSA can do about it.
[UPDATE: A reader forwards this letter by security expert Fred Cate, questioning the pat down procedure’s ability to detect powder PETN or distinguish medical devices from bomb components.]

Ordinary Gentleman Jason Kuznicki captures the absurdity of our current situation well with a clever bit of satire:

“What are all these people complaining about? It’s like getting an X-ray. I would do absolutely anything if it makes air travel safer.”

“Okay, great. Just one more security measure, then. Would you kiss this picture of Janet Napolitano on your way in?”

“But that won’t make us any safer!”

Neither will full-body porno scans.”

“Oh.” (Kisses picture.) “Thanks, TSA, I feel better already!”

“Don’t mention it.”

“Now what are all these people complaining about? It’s just kissing a silly little picture.”

And that about sums it up. Eight years and $40,000,000,000 since its creation, the most the TSA can say for itself is that it makes airline passengers feel safer.


While clearly wrong headed, the TSA’s new procedures are not the proper resting place for the animus of the American public. Pat downs and full body scanners are but symptoms of a much larger sickness: a bipartisan commitment to a public security strategy that inevitably leads to serious infringements of privacy and liberty in return for what can only be marginal gains in safety. Security technologist Bruce Schneier  explained the problem in an excellent essay written shortly after the underwear bomber’s attack:

The best defenses against terrorism are largely invisible: investigation, intelligence, and emergency response. But even these are less effective at keeping us safe than our social and political policies, both at home and abroad. However, our elected leaders don’t think this way: They are far more likely to implement security theater against movie-plot threats.

A “movie-plot threat” is an overly specific attack scenario. Whether it’s terrorists with crop dusters, terrorists contaminating the milk supply, or terrorists attacking the Olympics, specific stories affect our emotions more intensely than mere data does. 

To be sure, reasonable arguments can be made that some terrorist targets are more attractive than others: airplanes because a small bomb can result in the death of everyone aboard, monuments because of their national significance, national events because of television coverage, and transportation because of the numbers of people who commute daily.

But there are literally millions of potential targets in any large country — there are 5 million commercial buildings alone in the United States — and hundreds of potential terrorist tactics. It’s impossible to defend every place against everything, and it’s impossible to predict which tactic and target terrorists will try next.

Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders.

When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn’t truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn’t make any sense.

Often, this “something” is directly related to the details of a recent event. We confiscate liquids, screen shoes, and ban box cutters on airplanes. We tell people they can’t use an airplane restroom in the last 90 minutes of an international flight. But it’s not the target and tactics of the last attack that are important, but the next attack. These measures are only effective if we happen to guess what the next terrorists are planning.

If we spend billions defending our rail systems, and the terrorists bomb a shopping mall instead, we’ve wasted our money. If we concentrate airport security on screening shoes and confiscating liquids, and the terrorists hide explosives in their brassieres and use solids, we’ve wasted our money. Terrorists don’t care what they blow up and it shouldn’t be our goal merely to force the terrorists to make a minor change in their tactics or targets.

Our current response to terrorism is a form of “magical thinking.” It relies on the idea that we can somehow make ourselves safer by protecting against what the terrorists happened to do last time.

Adds Mr. Schneier in a second essay:

The problem with all these measures is that they’re only effective if we guess the plot correctly. Defending against a particular tactic or target makes sense if tactics and targets are few. But there are hundreds of tactics and millions of targets, so all these measures will do is force the terrorists to make a minor modification to their plot.

It’s magical thinking: If we defend against what the terrorists did last time, we’ll somehow defend against what they do one time. Of course this doesn’t work. We take away guns and bombs, so the terrorists use box cutters. We take away box cutters and corkscrews, and the terrorists hide explosives in their shoes. We screen shoes, they use liquids. We limit liquids, they sew PETN into their underwear. We implement full-body scanners, and they’re going to do something else. This is a stupid game; we should stop playing it.

But we can’t help it. As a species we’re hardwired to fear specific stories — terrorists with PETN underwear, terrorists on subways, terrorists with crop dusters — and we want to feel secure against those stories. So we implement security theater against the stories, while ignoring the broad threats.

Terrorist act, the public reacts, and then politicians scramble to show the electorate that they take the safety of the citizenry seriously. It is a pattern that permanently cedes the initiative to terrorist outfits while ensuring that a steady stream of programs and schemes designed to give the appearance of security (while providing nothing of the sort) will be thrust upon the American public. This strategy serves poll-conscience politicians well, but comes at a heavy cost to the body politic. Writing in last week’s American Thinker, Wesley Clark detailed the many rights and liberties that needed to be curtailed for this strategy to become reality:
The Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution states:

The right of the people to be secure…against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Under the Patriot Act, our private communications may be eavesdropped on, and personal transactions can be secretly scrutinized with self-written warrants (National Security Letters written by a federal agent) that prohibit your banker, librarian, or others served from notifying you of the search (you can’t even legally contest the warrant if you find out about it yourself, because if you complain to your lawyer or a court about it, you commit a felony by divulging that it exists). This act was originally justified by the War on Terror, but it has since been employed hundreds of thousands of times, often against innocent citizens swept up by innocent associations with alleged intelligence targets. The Obama administration is seeking to broaden the act still more.
TSA searches are now gutting the few remaining Fourth Amendment protections against search and seizure. Essentially, our government, supported by the courts, has defined a “Constitution-Free Zone” incorporating all airports and the area of the United States within one hundred miles of a border or the coast (termed the “functional equivalent of the border, or extended border”), in which constitutional protections under the Fourth Amendment are deemed not applicable, and are routinely flouted by the Department of Homeland Security.
The Department of Homeland Security has the authority to stop, search, and detain anyone and anything (including the contents of your computer), for any reason, within a “Constitution-Free Zone,” resident or traveler, without a warrant and without even having probable cause — only a reasonable suspicion, which by DHS rules and case law can include even ethnic indicators. Two-thirds of Americans live within this Constitution-Free Zone, especially the “liberal” residents of coastal cities in the “blue states.”
Ostensibly, your decision to travel by airline implies your choice to abandon your rights to privacy in order to serve the cause of collective security. If you don’t like it, just travel by car or bus instead — but don’t venture within one hundred miles of the border or the coast, or you may be subject to warrantless search without probable cause by other TSA agents with the Border Patrol or the Immigration and Customs Enforcement divisions.

However, our public security strategy does not just endanger American liberties – it endangers American lives. One only needs to see a single line of travelers trying to get through TSA security screening to realize how easily a terrorist intent on attacking the American air system and killing dozens of American could reach his aims.

Terrorist target
The quest to assure Americans that their elected leaders will stand for their safety has made Americans less safe. The systems and procedures authorized to assuage fears do not protect against the threats for which they are designed to meet, inherently infringe upon the liberties of those subject to them, and place those men and women they are meant safeguard into what is ultimately a more dangerous situation. By all objective measures they – and the strategy that produced them – have been a dismal failure.

And none of this alone will be enough to end it.


Jonathan Rauch’s “Demosclerosis” is one of the most important essays written in the last twenty years. In it he discusses the “calcification” of the federal government of the United States, a calcification driven by the simple and unavoidable fact that every department, program, and initiative created by the federal government also creates a group of people with a vested interest in keeping the new department, program, or initiative active and well funded. Eager to win big policy battle sure to make the evening news, congressmen are unwilling to invest the political capital needed to fight individual interest groups and eliminate useless programs. Congress after congress allows the detritus of decades past to build up until the  the government is so bogged down its own muck that it is impossible to reform any major features of the system.
The TSA provides an instructive example of this dynamic at work.
Since its creation in 2001, the TSA has hired a little less than 50,000 employees (DHS as a whole has a bit more than 200,000). These employees live in every state in the Union and every congressional district with an airport. Their jobs are counted when national employment statistics are gathered; their votes are counted when election season rolls around. 
As with all bureaucracies, the reputation and future career prospects of TSA bureaucrats depends on the continuing existence of the bureaucracy in which  they work. This holds true not only when these bureaucrats rise to the top of their own organization, but also if they wish to use existing bureaucratic contacts when they leave government employ for lucrative private contracting jobs.

As it turns out, infringing upon the rights of American citizens is a great way to make money. Each new full body scanner costs some $170,000; the number of airports in the United States and the number of scanners to be installed in each ensures that the dollars add up quickly. Two security companies, L-3 Communications and Rapiscan Systems, have each secured $160 contracts to build the TSA scanners. Unsurprisingly, these two companies doled out a great deal of cash this election season and have a significant presence on the K-street track

Add in the politicians desperate to show the citizenry their public security credentials and the set is complete. Any movement to rid the United States of our failed security strategy must come head to head with these vested interests. Sadly, as with so much else, it is unlikely that those with the power to change this strategy will find the concerns of enraged citizens more important than the concerns of these interests.

Consider who pays the costs placed upon us by the TSA. The most important members of the federal government fly federal air or get to skip through TSA security checks when they must take commercial flights. Private jet passengers (including the many congressmen whom corporations are eager to court) are exempt from TSA oversight, despite the threat posed by a terrorist hijacking of private aircraft. TSA screenings serve as a class marker, separating those with the power to preserve their dignity and liberty from those who (in the words of Glenn Greenwald) must accept “in the name of Fear that [they] must suffer indignities, humiliations and always-increasing loss of liberties at the hands of unchallengeable functionaries of the state.”

This is why, hopeless as it may be, we must resist and oppose the TSA’s new procedures – indeed, the entire farce of security theater that the TSA’s new procedures represent. Every additional rule and requirement is another imposition on the liberties of American citizens for the sake of a failed strategy whose sole beneficiaries are cowardly politicians and monied interests.  Standing up against the backscatter machines and the pat downs is about more  than a disgust with nude pictures or groping – it is about standing up against the arbitrary extension of government power over our lives for the sake of rich men in Washington. It is  showing the plutocrats that the American people are not the sheep they think we are.


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