Tag: body scan

Conservatives, Liberals, and the TSA

Libertarians often debate whether conservatives or liberals are more friendly to liberty. We often fall back on the idea that conservatives tend to support economic liberties but not civil liberties, while liberals support civil liberties but not economic liberties – though this old bromide hardly accounts for the economic policies of President Bush or the war-on-drugs-and-terror-and-Iraq policies of President Obama.

Score one for the conservatives in the surging outrage over the Transportation Security Administration’s new policy of body scanners and intimate pat-downs. You gotta figure you’ve gone too far in the violation of civil liberties when you’ve lost Rick Santorum, George Will, Kathleen Parker, and Charles Krauthammer. (Gene Healy points out that conservatives are reaping what they sowed.)

Meanwhile, where are the liberals outraged at this government intrusiveness? Where is Paul Krugman? Where is Arianna? Where is Frank Rich? Where is the New Republic? Oh sure, civil libertarians like Glenn Greenwald have criticized TSA excesses. But mainstream liberals have rallied around the Department of Homeland Security and its naked pictures: Dana Milbank channels John (“phantoms of lost liberty”) Ashcroft: “Republicans are providing the comfort [to our enemies]. They are objecting loudly to new airport security measures.” Ruth Marcus: “Don’t touch my junk? Grow up, America.” Eugene Robinson: “Be patient with the TSA.” Amitai Etzioni in the New Republic: “In defense of the ‘virtual strip-search.’” And finally, the editors of the New York Times: ”attacks are purely partisan and ideological.”

Could this just be a matter of viewing everything through a partisan lens? Liberals rally around the DHS of President Obama and Secretary Napolitano, while conservatives criticize it? Maybe. And although Slate refers to the opponents of body-scanning as “paranoid zealots,” that term would certainly seem to apply to apply to Mark Ames and Yasha Levine of the Nation, who stomp their feet, get red in the face, and declare every privacy advocate from John Tyner (“don’t touch my junk”) on to be “astroturf” tools of “Washington Lobbyists and Koch-Funded Libertarians.” (Glenn Greenwald took the article apart line by line.)

Most Americans want to be protected from terrorism and also to avoid unnecessary intrusions on liberty, privacy, and commerce. Security issues can be complex. A case can be made for the TSA’s new procedures. But it’s striking to see how many conservatives think the TSA has gone too far, and how dismissive – even contemptuous – liberals are of rising concerns about liberty and privacy.

Body Scanner Blues

I’ve got a piece in today’s New York Post that points out some inconvenient truths about the body scanners now installed at airports across the country. Building on Jim Harper’s excellent post, body scanners are not being installed because of a well-reasoned risk analysis.

As Timothy Carney pointed out in the Washington Examiner, this is a sop to the companies that make the body scanners. The machines don’t work as well as advertised – a March GAO Report determined that it is not certain the technology would have found Farouk Abdulmutallab’s suspicious package, and that a cost-benefit analysis needed to be conducted before spending $340 million each year to run the labor-intensive equipment.

The same report found that cargo screening was a weak spot that ought to be addressed, but it took terrorist cargo bomb plots to get the TSA to momentarily escape the clutches of regulatory capture and tend to this threat. The British have been much more candid about the limitations of this technology as applied to low-density explosives, noting that the scanners probably wouldn’t have stopped the 2006 liquid bomb plot at Heathrow.

Of course, you can always opt out of the body scanners in favor of a groping on par with the one that motivated my colleague Penn Jillette to report his sexual assault to the police.

You could opt out entirely. TSA Director John Pistole says you won’t fly, but if you publicize your objections, the TSA may try to fine you $11,000.

Keep a stiff upper lip. I’m sure that this will all be much smoother and less invasive when TSA screeners unionize.

Getting TSA to Look in the Mirror

If you travel by plane, you either hate the Transportation Security Administration, or will soon do so.  The TSA has unveiled a new security pat down which is about as close to a strip-search as you can get while still wearing clothes.

With a metal knee replacement I invariably set off the TSA metal detectors.  I can avoid a pat down by using the fancy new imaging machine where it is available.  But this machine images everything on the body, and that means everything.  The explicit nature of the pictures is reflected in the nick-name which I’m told TSA employees have applied to the machine.  Let your mind wander, but imagine a crude term about measuring the male genitalia.

The other alternative is to accept the pat down.  Until recently TSA employees used a hand-held wand to check for metal and did a limited hand check.  The new system eschews the wand and replaces it with searching hands climbing up the inside of the thighs – all the way up.

The only saving grace for me is when veterans do the check.  When they realize that I have an implant and go through the check weekly and sometimes daily, most of them take a more relaxed approach.  But the newer, and often more determined to do everything by the book, employees really mean it when they announce that they are about to check my thigh.

Like never before, the new procedure has set off public protests.  And anger could increase at Thanksgiving, when so many more people will be flying.  No one wants airplanes to be hijacked, but few people believe that the current system does much to safeguard us.  At least, much of what is done today looks to be “Security Theater,” meant to reassure rather than actually do improve security.

One possible alternative would be for airports to take back control of the process.  Reports the Washington Examiner:

[Rep. John] Mica, one of the authors of the original TSA bill, has recently written to the heads of more than 150 airports nationwide suggesting they opt out of TSA screening. “When the TSA was established, it was never envisioned that it would become a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy which was soon to grow to 67,000 employees,” Mica writes. “As TSA has grown larger, more impersonal, and administratively top-heavy, I believe it is important that airports across the country consider utilizing the opt-out provision provided by law.”

Private security personnel obviously could mimic the TSA’s worst practices.  But if there were multiple actors providing security services competition would encourage airports to look for improved techniques which would cost less, waste less time, and create less embarrassment.

The vast majority of the TSA personnel with whom I deal are polite and friendly.  Most actually are working, though it’s not clear their activities always benefit the public.  But they all seem to lack a sense of irony.

I enjoy wearing my Cato t-shirt with the P.J. O’Rourke quote about giving to power to government being like giving car keys and whiskey to a teenage boy.  I receive a lot of admiring comments on it–including from TSA employees.  Today it happened again, at Washington Dulles.  As I was waiting for my regular TSA-provided fondling experience down below.

It’s no knock on the individual employees to point out that the TSA as an agency is a perfect example of what P.J. was warning against.  Give Barack Obama & Co. this power and we are likely to lose our money, freedom, and dignity.

I’d like to believe we’ve entered a new political era in Washington, but I’ve worked through too many “new eras” to believe that this one is really new.  But a popular uprising about TSA de facto strip searches would be a good start.