It has been the worst-kept secret of the last decade: a truth that dared speak its name only when muttered quietly, a ruse that has been justified and rejustified on grounds that would never traditionally pass muster; and a target for Americans across the political board — for the recalcitrant, for the complaisant, and for those somewhere in between.
It, of course, is the TSA — that vain, extravagant, and unhappily anxious piece of post-9/11 performance art that has been extended far beyond Broadway and out onto a permanent tour of the provinces, in whose airports a cast of little Napoleons engage gravely in what has become nothing less than an impudent con.
The federal government has spent more than $60 billion on the TSA since 2002, a sum that has helped the outfit mushroom into the employer of some 65,000 people — more than the combined forces of the Departments of State, Labor, Energy, Education, and Housing and Urban Development. A congressional report from 2012 aptly labeled the congregation “an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy,” mostly interested in “consolidating power,” and a few months later, as if to grimly prove the point, the agency secured for itself a union contract via the American Federation of Government Employees. The first order of business naturally was to establish that annual leave be calculated not on anything as prosaic as job performance but instead on good old-fashioned seniority, the patron saint of inefficiency and inertia.
One can rather understand why the TSA’s bumptious stiffs were so keen to break the link between the security of their positions and the security of the public: They are doing nothing, and they know it. Here, incompetence is a feature not a bug — the foreordained product of a vast and intricate confidence-laundering operation that would have made the Wizard of Oz blush. Vanity Fair’s Charles C. Mann explained candidly in 2011 that the TSA’s actions are explicitly set up to “accomplish nothing,” and “designed” instead “to make the government look like it is on the job.”
Obstinate critics of the state will presumably agree that the TSA has, at least, achieved that. Casual rudeness? Check. Terminal inefficiency? Check. Pococurante abuse, with precious little to show for it? Check, check. The TSA is the platonic ideal of a government department! It belongs in the Smithsonian.
In a free country such as America, the scale of the TSA’s inadequacy should by now have been cause for a revolt. Time after time, contrarians and the skeptics have set out to puncture the façade — and they have succeeded. Among the attempts, Adam Savage, the scofflaw co-host of Discovery’s Mythbusters, managed to get a pair of twelve-inch razor blades through the system and onto a plane; undercover agents from DHS’s investigative “Red Team” snuck a dummy IED past agents, despite being subjected to magnometer scans and pat-downs; and an executive for the New Orleans Hornets recently took a loaded handgun in his carry-on luggage without so much as a raised eyebrow.
The right balance between security and liberty is a knotty thing to divine. But Americans are not being asked to determine such a thing — indeed, they are not even being asked to choose between Henry’s liberty or death. They are instead being asked to decide between liberty and dramaturgy. The choice should be clear.
In Politico magazine this week, a former TSA employee named Jason Harrington revealed that the staff are in on the game. “We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed,” Harrington recalled. And yet he and his team were “ordered to tell the public that the machines were 100 percent effective, security-wise, in the event that any citizens caught wind of rumors to the contrary.” The TSA, in other words, has adopted the logic by which the employees at Disneyland are bound: All children who start to look behind the rebar cages and metal lath that make Frontierland’s canyons appear to be real must quickly be given an ice cream and directed toward the parade. Somewhere, Grigory Potemkin is chuckling.
How bad is it? Bad enough that the much-hated full-body scanners — each of which plucked $150,000 out of taxpayers’ pockets — are “unable to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat,” while “guns are practically invisible if . . . turned sideways in a pocket.” The system, Harrington reveals, is capable of “detecting just about everything” . . . “besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns,” which helps to explain why seven out of ten weapons get past screeners and why, per the admission of one of its early legislative champions, the TSA has never caught a single would-be bomber.
A general rule of thumb is that before a piece of technology has been proven to have any real value, it will be employed to distribute smut. So, too, here: “Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern — their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions.” Worried about rogue employees taking advantage of your privacy? How about thousands of such people making racial jokes about your junk? Harrington remembers that, in the rooms where the full-body scans are read,
duty quickly devolved into an unofficial break. It was the one place in the airport free of surveillance cameras, since the TSA had assured the public that no nude images of passengers would be stored on any recording device, closed circuit cameras included.
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who will watch the watchers?), the Roman poet Juvenal asked. Half-responding in The Republic, Socrates argued that one needed only to “devise . . . just one noble lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city.”
In constitutional republics, noble lies are problematic at the best of times. But when the rulers, the guards, and the rest of the city all know that the lie is a lie, the endeavor becomes mere harlequinade — and, at 8 billion dollars a year, improvident, too. A better question, perhaps, is this: “Who will fire the guards”?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.