Politics & Policy

TSA Troubles

Pity the TSA — but not too much. The agents of the Transportation Security Administration tasked with managing the array of scanners, screenings, and security protocols at the nation’s airports are an inviting target for populist outrage. Airline travelers are apt to be already tense and unhappy by the time they get to the screening — thanks to our clownishly incompetent airline operators — and TSA does itself no good with over-the-top episodes such as the too-vigorous pat-down of a bladder-cancer survivor whose medical appliance was torn open in a particularly humiliating fashion by a thoughtless agent who ignored the poor man’s pleas for caution. TSA agents are not uniformly noted for their efficiency or pleasant dispositions. It is easy to hate the TSA.

On the other hand, no passenger wants his airplane hijacked, bombed out of the sky, or crashed into a building — and that is what the TSA, in its imperfect way, is attempting to prevent. How to balance our concerns?

We must first admit frankly that the current screening protocols are deeply flawed and that it is naïve to think that purportedly ideal solutions — which range from a nearly frictionless techno-centric approach to replication of the system used by El Al, the Israeli airline — are in the works. The technology simply is not good enough to head off the need for human intelligence and human inspection, while the Israeli system, which has its merits, probably cannot be very well adapted to American circumstances for reasons of  politics (Americans’ oversensitivity toward anything that smacks of racial  profiling) and scale (the United States is a much larger country with much more complex vulnerabilities).

What steps might be taken immediately?

The first is to provide TSA with the same information and analysis tools available to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which gets access to basic passenger data — phone numbers, mailing addresses and the like — and uses it to rate the riskiness of passengers. As Nathan Sales points out, that information helped Customs identify would-be airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as a potential risk, but TSA does not enjoy access to the same data. Given the amount of hot political talk that was engaged in post-9/11 on the subject of tearing down the walls between various law-enforcement and national-security agencies, it is something of a scandal that TSA is deprived of government information that might help it do its job.

The second is to establish a pre-screening program for passengers who are willing to submit to detailed background checks in exchange for enjoying access to expedited security procedures. This would not only lighten TSA’s workload at the chokepoints, but would also provide very sensitive or vulnerable passengers, such as those with disabilities, with an alternative arrangement vastly preferable to the one they currently endure.

The third is to adopt, without apology, the parts of the El Al model that can indeed be adopted. Let us dispense with the evasive talk about the futility of screening “elderly Norwegian nuns” and proceed forthrightly from the fact that inasmuch as the United States has a problem with standing, organized terrorism plots, it has a problem with standing, organized, Muslim terrorism plots. Yes, there are Tim McVeighs out there, and doubtless others of his ilk, but they are for the most part lone-wolf lunatics whose actions cannot be anticipated and rarely are replicated. Muslim terrorists, on the other hand, are part of organized networks encompassing thousands of people in dozens of countries. The fact that the greater part of Muslims loathe and despise terrorists at least as much as do non-Muslims does not alter the fact that a man called Mohammed with a Pakistan stamp on his passport is rightly regarded as a more of a terrorism risk than is a man called Smith who flies once a week from Des Moines to Denver. To the extent we can adopt a top-flight, analytically sophisticated profiling program, we should.

Finally, we should shift a small percentage of the billions of dollars spent to train and pay TSA screeners to real R&D to develop better technology and associated privacy protections. Congressional Democrats removed a cap on the number of TSA screeners and have pushed for unionization, exploding personnel costs at a time when spending on federal employees should be under the microscope. Equipment manufacturers complain about TSA’s slow and bureaucratic approval processes which delay deployment and hinder investment in a market that should be producing innovations that can protect us.

The self-appointed guardians of privacy and tribunes of all sensitivities operate in a state of unreality, complaining both about the sophisticated, data-driven techniques that can help prevent terrorism and the primitive, abuse-inviting, hands-on techniques that have been used instead, the over-application of which is necessitated in no small part by the forbidding of alternatives. The TSA may not be staffed by the most impressive crew to be found in public service, but it is the policy, not they, that is the problem. 

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