TSA: Out in left field

Shadowlight Theater poster, 1963. Milton Glaser

The TSA keeps on keeping on. Between May 4th and 10th, 2012, here’s what they found on the roughly 10 million air passengers* in US airports during that period.

  • Firearms: 30 - 29 loaded; 1 unloaded
  • 1 artfully concealed prohibited item found at checkpoints

TSA’s homepage posted this link to the story of one of their employees who helped thwart an abduction on his way to work at the Dallas/Ft Worth airport. Good on him.

At the TSA Blog, the find of the week was a disassembled gun and ammunition found in a three of a child’s stuffed animals, one of which was Mickey Mouse.

This is just another example that threats can appear anywhere and this is why our Officers take a closer look at everything. It’s also an example that shows that even though we’ve made changes to how we screen children 12 & under, the security process is still just as effective.

Meanwhile in Salt Lake City, a Savannah Barry, diabetic sixteen-year-old girl with her physician’s letter in her hand, was coerced into undergoing a full body scan which damaged the software in her $10,000 insulin pump.

“I was like, ‘Are you sure that I can go through with this insulin pump? It’s not going to hurt the pump at all?’ And she was like, ‘No, no, you’re fine.’ So I went through with my pump. Some part of me knew that it wasn’t OK, but when someone in a position of authority is telling you it is, you think that it’s right,” said Barry.

Although TSA policy clearly states that diabetics can travel with their insulin and have the right to opt for a pat-down, there have been ongoing problems  and according to a staff attorney for the American Diabetes Association training in the field has been lacking.

Finally, Bruce Schneier explains what’s wrong with profiling people at airports.

Any bureaucracy that processes 630 million people per year will generate stories like this. When people propose profiling, they are really asking for a security system that can apply judgment. Unfortunately, that’s really hard. Rules are easier to explain and train. Zero tolerance is easier to justify and defend. Judgment requires better-educated, more expert, and much-higher-paid screeners. And the personal career risks to a TSA agent of being wrong when exercising judgment far outweigh any benefits from being sensible.

The proper reaction to screening horror stories isn’t to subject only “those people” to it; it’s to subject no one to it. (Can anyone even explain what hypothetical terrorist plot could successfully evade normal security, but would be discovered during secondary screening?) Invasive TSA screening is nothing more than security theater. It doesn’t make us safer, and it’s not worth the cost. Even more strongly, security isn’t our society’s only value. Do we really want the full power of government to act out our stereotypes and prejudices? Have we Americans ever done something like this and not been ashamed later? This is what we have a Constitution for: to help us live up to our values and not down to our fears.

*Note: My very conservative estimate based on number of passengers reported by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics for January 2012, the most recent month available.

Can’t forget the TSA

Chas. H. Yale's forever Devil's auction, U.S. Printing Co., c1899 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

After a couple of weeks with a higher than average number of firearms being found by TSA agents, the period between April 27th and May 3rd, 2012, was quieter.

  • Firearms: 23 - 22 loaded; 1 unloaded
  • 1 artfully concealed prohibited item found at checkpoints

Blogger Bob and the rest of the TSA Blog Team either had a very slow week or exactly the same things were found as last reported, including black plastic dagger, knife in walker and tomahawk.

In Washington DC, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform led by Darrell Issa (R, just up the coast a bit) had some strong words to say about TSA management practices in a report highlighting the agency’s willingness to buy expensive equipment without sufficiently testing its effectiveness.

“Little has changed in the past three years and the systemic flaws continue to plague the TSA. These flaws are exacerbated by a management structure that seems content to throw millions of dollars at untested solutions that are bought in excess and poorly deployed and managed. That is not a security operation, but rather a recipe for disaster.”

In at least one case, the TSA bought (and is paying to store) more screening devices that it needed in order to get a discount, hoping that they would eventually find a use for them.

If you wonder what happens to all the things passengers “voluntarily surrender” before being allowed to board their planes, look no farther than Harrisburg.

There’s some money in this for a cash-strapped state. Pennsylvania has been selling off TSA-collected items since 2004 — total revenue roughly $700,000 — but recently has begun selling the stuff by the lot, at the online government auction site www.govdeals.com.

Exactly how much stuff are we talking about here? No one knows, because no one is keeping track (but Newark Airport alone collects four tons of prohibited items annually).

Don’t forget the TSA!

Magazines weighted down with pistols, Drugstore, Gonzales Texas, March 1939. Russell Lee, American. (Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC)

I guess more of our air travelers must have been feeling threatened during the period between April 13th and 19th, 2012, because there were a lot more loaded guns found, according to the TSA‘s weekly accounting.

  • Firearms: 30- 26 loaded; 4 unloaded
  • 3 artfully concealed prohibited items found at checkpoints

According to the TSA Blog, one of those loaded weapons was carried by a man at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. It was the second time the same person has been caught attempting to board a plane with a loaded gun and he was actually arrested this time. Elsewhere, not only did TSA agents find a sword in a cane, but there was also a knife in a lipstick case–there’s a photo on the blog’s website but the case doesn’t appear to have any notches.

Atlantic writers/bloggers James Fallows and Jeffrey Goldberg have both written about the TSA this week.

Let’s start with Mr Goldberg’s story of his 79-year-old mother-in-law’s experience at Washington Reagan Airport on April 24th. I’ll let you find the title here. Afterwards, she offered a critique and a suggestion.

The experience left her flummoxed, however. “What did they think I was, a lady underpants bomber?”

I asked her if she felt embarrassed by the manner in which the TSA treated her.

“I’m not embarrassed,” she said. “I just think they’re stupid and their machinery is defective and they should learn to whisper when they’re talking about my crotch, or anyone’s crotch.”

James Fallows first post (here) includes the story of the 4-year-old Missoula girl who’s still having nightmares after her TSA experience–she thinks they tried to kidnap her after she ran to her grandmother’s arms. (Be sure to read his peeved update at the bottom–he’s promised to write about his most recent personal experience when he’s cooled down some).

In his second post (here) Mr Fallows directly addresses the difficulties in scaling back the excesses of security theater in response to a conservative comment he added to his previous post.

The full answer, of course, involves the ratchet effect of “security” measures. It’s easy for politicians to slap on extra “precautions,” in the name of keeping us safe; and by the same logic it is hyper-perilous for any politician ever to suggest their removal. After all, eventually there will be another attack, another death, another thing that has gone wrong — and at that moment all fingers will point at the leader who “let down our guard.” I made that case more fully back in 2010.

He quotes David Moles from San Francisco on political realities:

 [M]ost people in this country don’t fly very much, and when they do, they don’t expect to enjoy it. Many people in this country (even otherwise quite sensible people) are at least a little afraid of flying, and many people in this country are afraid of terrorism, and both fears are far out of proportion to the actual risk of either; terrorism on an airplane is the stuff of nightmares. Any politician that made reining in the TSA a cornerstone of his or her campaign would attract a small constituency of aviation buffs and frequent flyers — and a storm of gleeful attack ads accusing said politician of being weak on national security and soft on terrorism.

And our own glorious Blogmaster Bob posted about a couple of other recent outrages several days ago, in case you missed them.

Just another week for the TSA

The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise, 1445. Giovanni di Paolo, Italian (Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

First, to get the basics out of the way, let’s see what we got in return for the weekly $150,961,538 they cost us. According to the TSA, here’s what they found during the period between April 6th and April 12, 2012 :

  • Firearms: 32 - 19 loaded; 13 unloaded
  • 6 artfully concealed prohibited items found at checkpoints

The TSA Blog continues its artful exposition of the forbidden items discovered by its intrepid officers, including the can of soup someone in Las Vegas tried to sneak aboard a plane, first in carry-on luggage and then in his pants. (I’m sure there’s a joke there somewhere.) And yes, even more incredibly stupid folk still think it’s a good idea to joke about explosives in their luggage with completely predicable results.

As a matter of fact, the stories that surfaced this week have an explosive theme.

At the Portland International Airport John Brennan, who had already gone through a metal detector and been patted down, responded to the screener’s statement that he tested positive for explosives by stripping down.

“I just took off my clothes and said ‘See, I don’t have any explosives,'” Brennan told CNN on Wednesday. “The individuals at TSA are just doing their job and the whole organization needs to find a balance between safety and privacy . They use fear and intimidation and it’s got to stop somewhere.”

TSA called the police who arrested him for disorderly conduct and indecent exposure, but Mr Brennan believes it was worth fighting back in defense of his civil rights.

Meanwhile, here in San Diego, a 95-year-old retired Air Force Major and his 85-year-old companion were “treated like terrorists” after they set off metal detector alarms going through security, probably because they have artificial joints.

After both set off alarms, they were patted down. Then, a security officer did a litmus test on Petti’s clothing, which tested positive for nitrates. Petti explained that he carries nitroglycerin pills for his heart. Nonetheless, Petti was taken to a private room for yet another pat-down by a different officer while the same security officer emptied their carry-on bags and rifled through every item.

“When I was patted down, I’ve never before been touched in every part of my body before,” Woodward said.

When they were finally released and retrieved their possessions only 4 of the 5 bins were there. The fifth bin had contained $300 Mr Petti had in his pocket and was explicitly instructed to remove and put into a bin for screening. When he brought his loss to the attention of the TSA employees he was disbelieved. He has since filed police reports and written letters.

“I think I was scammed,” Petti says. “I would like my money back, but money doesn’t pay for all the stress and humiliation.”

In the weeks since, Petti has filed a police report with the San Diego Harbor Police. He’s written a lengthy letter addressed to the airport federal security director in San Diego and he’s copied politicians: local and national, including President Obama. And he is in the process of filling out a four-page “Tort Claim Package” as required by the TSA.

Nobody, he says, is giving him a straight answer.

Quelle surprise!

However, not all TSA stories were negative. A TSA officer in Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport found and turned in an envelope with 95 $100 bills in it that had  been dropped by a passenger, who didn’t realize that his money was missing until he was back home in Iowa. He got his money back after his son called the airport to report the loss.

Why pick on TSA?

Circus poster, Omaha, Nebraska, November 1938. John Vachon, American. ( Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.)

First, let’s take a look at what they say they found during the period between March 16th and 22nd, 2012:

  • Firearms: 29: 21 loaded; 8 unloaded
  • 3 artfully concealed prohibited items found at checkpoints

As far as I can tell, none of these people with firearms (unloaded or not), “artfully concealed items” or whatever are being arrested, unless they’re found with drugs. And the TSA was not intended to be part of the drug war.

At the TSA Blog, there are more photos and stories from airport checkpoints around the country, including a “debrainer”, IED training aids, inert landmines, model rocket engines and airbag actuators.

The TSA’s budget for this year is $7.85 billion, up $153 million from 2011. According to WolframAlpha, that’s $21.51 million per day, or $894,100 per hour. TSA is security theater, designed to make it seem that something is being done to keep us safe, but there is absolutely no proof that TSA measures have ever thwarted a serious plot. If they had done so, you wouldn’t have had to wait for me to blog about here. It would have been all over the news. Instead we get lists of items that range from ninja weapons to a jar of poisonous snakes preserved in alcohol (yes, really).

There are many ways that we are vulnerable to attack that don’t involve airplanes. Think about that the next time you find yourself in a crowd anywhere–shopping centers, sports events, traffic jams, parades, even the lines of people waiting to go through a TSA checkpoint. (Of course, statistically you are most likely to be killed by your nearest and dearest.  And hands down, the most dangerous thing you regularly do is get behind the wheel of your car.)

The real risk for anyone traveling by air happens before you get on the plane and is caused by X-ray backscatter machines, the use of which have been banned in the European Union due to concerns about the danger from cumulative exposure to radiation.

Meanwhile, the greatest threat to passengers on an airplane this week came from a deranged JetBlue pilot.