Have you ever wondered what really goes on behind the scenes at Transportation Security Administration airport checkpoints?
Wonder no more. Recently, a former TSA screener wrote a tell-all article for Politico Magazine describing how America’s airport security apparatus actually works.
It’s not a pretty picture. At the bottom of the pecking order, the TSA passenger screening agents act a lot like teenaged boys. They spend much of their time reviewing the digital images of attractive females – “Alfalfas,” in TSA lingo – recorded on airport body scanners.
It’s even worse at the top of the TSA food chain. Consider the saga of the Rapiscan scanner, which began after an inept terrorist with a bomb hidden in his underwear tried to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day 2009. The bomb failed to explode, but America’s top-secret national security bureaucracy went into high gear following this “Underwear Bomber” incident. Its mission: to come up with new ways to detect bombs or weapons hidden under clothing.
It quickly became apparent that no one in the national security bureaucracy – starting at the top with Homeland Security Administration Secretary Janet Napolitano – really cared about whether a proposed solution actually worked. It was far more important to direct the billions of dollars Congress had appropriated to “fight terrorism” to the right place.
Rapiscan was one of the most politically connected companies with which Napolitano had to contend. Its chief lobbyist was none other than former Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff. Within weeks, Napolitano ordered more than 300 of Rapiscan’s machines, at $150,000 each. That’s not chump change.
From the outset, it was clear the devices didn’t work. One instructor at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport admitted as much when the machines were being installed. “They’re s**t,” he said. One problem is that body fat and plastic explosives look a lot alike on the scanners. Another is that firearms are virtually invisible to the devices if turned sideways in a pocket.
When the politicians in charge of our national security believe catering to lobbyists is more important than – well, security – you know we’re in trouble.
Unfortunately, the TSA doesn’t do much better when it doesn’t rely on lobbyists. Take the TSA’s “Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques” (SPOT) program. It’s based largely on the theory that our thoughts lead to unintentional “microexpressions” that can reveal concealed emotions. A media-savvy police officer at Boston’s Logan Airport figured out that if he claimed the technique was “racially neutral,” it might catch on.
He was right. The TSA didn’t want to offend anyone who might actually blow up an airplane. So instead, over the next decade, it spent nearly $1 billion deploying more than 3,000 “behavioral detection officers” to US airports to identify suspected terrorists. But according to a report issued late last year by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), it’s been a total waste of money.
The report revealed that in 2011 and 2012, the TSA referred 61,000 passengers to law enforcement agencies for investigation. Only 365 of these individuals were arrested – primarily for immigration-related offenses. The TSA’s behavioral experts didn’t find a single terrorist. On the other hand, the GAO found that 16 people who were later charged with terrorism-related activities managed to board airplanes – despite Rapiscan, SPOT, and all the rest of the TSA’s security initiatives.
This is the system you finance with your tax dollars. It’s worse than you ever imagined. It is, in the words of security expert Bruce Schneier, “security theater” at its finest.
Preventing airplanes from blowing up isn’t the real purpose. The actual objective is to create the appearance of security, while catering to the wants and needs of lobbyists and the voting public whom the mainstream media whip into a frenzy to “do something” about terrorism.
The TSA’s lack of success in detecting terrorists hasn’t stopped it from engaging in that time-honored pastime of “mission creep.” Not content to just screen passengers at airports, the TSA now sets up mobile screening centers along America’s highways and at bus depots and train stations. There’s no evidence this deployment does anything except give travelers headaches… but it satisfies the “do something” mentality.
Next time you hear a politician say we urgently need to “do something” – about anything – remember the TSA. If you care to do a little investigation, check out the politician’s campaign donors. Look into the politician’s background to find any business associates or family members who might stand to gain financially if he or she gets the “urgently needed” measures enacted. Always keep in mind that the actual priorities have little, if anything, to do with the stated needs.
Unfortunately, the tendency to placate powerful private interests is a characteristic of all bureaucracies. It’s impossible to avoid completely, as you’ve no doubt noticed when transiting through an airport.
But there are ways you can minimize the damage to your wealth, your privacy, and your dignity. One of the best ways I know is to seek solutions to those things you need in countries where bureaucracies aren’t running amok.
In many cases, this means living, working, investing, and traveling in countries where Big Brother isn’t – at least not yet – well funded enough to set up the kind of politically entrenched and immovable bureaucracies like the TSA.
For instance, in the Caribbean and many South American countries, airport security is considerably more relaxed than in the United States, yet terrorist-related incidents are extremely rare. You walk through a metal detector, present your boarding pass to the gate agent, and board the plane. That’s all.
It boils down to what’s important to you. If you believe that bureaucracies like the TSA consistently act in your best interests, do nothing. If you don’t, consider the alternatives.