Tag: TSA

Beware the Depends Bomber?

My Washington Examiner column this week is on TSA, the federal agency that’s its own reductio ad absurdum.

In the latest TSA atrocity, the agency forced a wheelchair-bound, 95-year-old leukemia patient to remove her adult diaper, for fear she might be wired to explode. “It’s something I couldn’t imagine happening on American soil,” her distraught daughter told the press: “Here is my mother, 95 years old, 105 pounds, barely able to stand, and then this.”

My God, what is she on about? Proper procedure was followed!

As I point out in the column:

in a classic case of “mission creep,” TSA is taking its show on the road and the rails.

Remember when, pushing his bullet-train boondoggle in the 2011 State of the Union, President Obama cracked that it would let you travel “without the pat-down”? Not funny—also, not true.

Earlier this year, Amtrak passengers in Savannah, Ga., stepped off into a TSA checkpoint. Though the travelers had already disembarked the train, agents made women lift their shirts to check for bra explosives. Two weeks ago, armed TSA and Homeland Security agents hit a bus depot in Des Moines, Iowa, to question passengers and demand their papers.

These raids are the work of TSA’s “Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response” (VIPR or “Viper”) teams—an acronym at once senseless and menacing, much like the agency itself.

All this is happening at a time when al Qaeda looks more harried, pathetic, and weaker than ever. But hey, you can never be too careful, right?

Feel Safer?

Should TSA Change Its Policy?

News that Transportation Security Administration officers required a 95-year-old cancer patient to remove her adult diaper for search lit up the social media this weekend. It’s reminiscent of the recent story where a 6-year-old girl got the pat-down because she didn’t hold still in the strip-search machine. TSA administrator John Pistole testified to a Senate hearing that the agency would change its policy about children shortly thereafter.

So, should the TSA change policy once again? Almost certainly. Will it ever arrive at balanced policies that aren’t punctuated by outrages like this? Almost certainly not.

You see, the TSA does not seek policies that anyone would call sensible or balanced. Rather, it follows political cues, subject to the bureaucratic prime directive described by Cato chairman emeritus and distinguished senior economist Bill Niskanen long ago: maximize discretionary budget.

When the TSA’s political cues pointed toward more intrusion, that’s where it went. Recall the agency’s obsession with small, sharp things early in its tenure, and the shoe fetish it adopted after Richard Reid demonstrated the potential hazards of footwear. Next came liquids after the revelation of a bomb plot around smuggling in sports bottles. And in December 2009, the underwear bomber focused the TSA on everyone’s pelvic region. Woe to the traveler whose medical condition requires her to wear something concealing the government’s latest fixation.

The TSA pursues the bureaucratic prime directive—maximize budget—by assuming, fostering, and acting on the maximum possible threat. So a decade after 9/11, TSA and Department of Homeland Security officials give strangely time-warped commentary whenever they speechify or testify, recalling the horrors of 2001 as if it’s 2003. The prime directive also helps explain why TSA has expanded its programs following each of the attempts on aviation since 9/11, even though each of them has failed. For a security agency, security threats are good for business. TSA will never seek balance, but will always promote threat as it offers the only solution: more TSA.

Because of countervailing threats to its budget—sufficient outrage on the part of the public—TSA will withdraw from certain policies from time to time. But there is no capacity among the public to sustain “outrage” until the agency is actually managing risk in a balanced and cost-effective way. (You can ignore official claims of “risk-based” policies until you’ve actually seen the risk management and cost-benefit documents.)

TSA should change its policy, yes, but its fundamental policies will not change. Episodes like this will continue indefinitely against a background of invasive, overwrought airline security that suppresses both the freedom to travel and the economic well-being of the country.

In a 2005 Reason magazine “debate” on airline security, I described the incentive structure that airlines and airports face, which is much more conducive to nesting security with convenience, privacy, savings, and overall traveler comfort and satisfaction. The threat of terrorism has only dropped since then. We should drop the TSA.

State Officials Needn’t Heed Feds’ Threats

Federal officials blitzed Texas this week to fight a bill pending in Austin that would control TSA groping of air travelers in that state, reports Forbes’ “Not-So-Private Parts” blogger Kashmir Hill.

Federal government officials descended on the Capitol to hand out a letter … from the Texas U.S. Attorney letting senators know that if they passed the bill, the TSA would probably have to cancel all flights out of Texas. As much as they love their state, the idea of shutting down airports and trapping people in Texas was scary enough to get legislators to reconsider their support for the groping bill…

The federal government’s threat to shut down air travel is serious, but empty. As we’ve seen time and again with the REAL ID Act, the federal government does not have the political will to attack passenger air travel in the name of increasing surveillance and intrusion.

In fact, earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security didn’t even bother to threaten any repurcussions for states before it once again pushed back a May 2011 (false) deadline for REAL ID compliance. (Previous instances noted here and here.) The REAL ID Act allows the federal government to refuse licenses and ID cards from non-complying states at airport checkpoints, but it’s just not going to happen.

The DHS announcement notes $175 million in spending on REAL ID so far. That waste continues to accrue so long as Congress appropriates money for the national ID program, which will never be implemented.

While we’re on the subject of empty threats from federal officials—and do see Julian Sanchez’s post hitting the same subject—it has been more than four years since then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff said about the REAL ID Act:

If we don’t get it done now, someone is going to be sitting around in three or four years explaining to the next 9/11 Commission why we didn’t do it.

Secretary Chertoff was wrong—factually wrong on the imminence and nature of the terror threat, and ethically wrong to tout terror threats in an attempt to defeat the will of our free people.

With our stubborn insistence on freedom, the American people and state leaders have done a better job of assessing the threat environment than the Secretary of Homeland Security. As I said when I testified on this topic to the Pennsylvania legislature, state leaders should continue to recognize that they are as equipped, if not better equipped, than federal officials to judge what is right for their people. Counterterrorism and airport security are not an exception to that, though federal imperiousness in these areas remains at a high.

Flynn’s ‘Recalibrating Homeland Security’

The May/June issue of Foreign Affairs focuses on “The New Arab Revolt” (also the focus of an event at Cato a month ago). Some of the articles have a touch of datedness because they refer to the continuing pursuit of Osama bin Laden. But not so Stephen Flynn’s “Recalibrating Homeland Security,” ($) a terrific discussion of how the federal government’s post-9/11 policies have failed to meet the challenge of terrorism. Flynn throws a sentence at the living icon of al Qaeda, but the insights of his article are well worth taking in.

Most insightfully, Flynn theorizes just why it is that “nearly a decade after al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Washington still lacks a coherent strategy for harnessing the nation’s best assets for managing risks to the homeland—civil society and the private sector.”

During the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union required “a large, complex, and highly secretive national security establishment.”

To an extraordinary extent, this same self-contained Cold War-era national security apparatus is what Washington is using today to confront the far different challenge presented by terrorism. U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, the border agencies, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are subsumed in a world of security clearances and classified documents. Prohibited from sharing information on threats and vulnerabilities with the general public, these departments’ officials have become increasingly isolated from the people that they serve.

This helps explain TSA’s effrontery with travelers, the “secrecy reflex,” and the ongoing risk of overreaction. Flynn stresses that focusing on resiliency will do our country much better than those brittle, fear-backed political demands for 100% protection.

“Read the whole thing” is a bloggic accolade that I use sparingly, recognizing the limits on readers’ time. At a brief 10 pages, despite the hurdle of having to log in/buy access to the article, Flynn’s “Recalibrating Homeland Security” gets my: Read the whole thing.

House Approps Strips TSA of Strip-Search Funds

The fiscal 2012 Department of Homeland Security spending bill is starting to make its way through the process, and the House Appropriations Committee said in a release today that “the bill does not provide $76 million requested by the President for 275 additional advanced inspection technology (AIT) scanners nor the 535 staff requested to operate them.”

If the House committee’s approach carries the day, there won’t be 275 more strip-search machines in our nation’s airports. No word on whether the committee will defund the operations of existing strip-search machines.

Saving money and reducing privacy invasion? Sounds like a win-win.

After bin Laden

As Chris Preble noted early Monday morning, Osama bin Laden is dead. In addition to celebrating V-OBL Day, we should take a moment to reflect on wars of the last decade and the civil liberties we have sacrificed since September 11, 2001. Malou Innocent makes the case for reconsidering our foreign policy, and Jim Harper asks if he can have his airport back. We lay out these thoughts in more detail in this Cato video, After bin Laden.

The phrase “after bin Laden” has a nice ring to it. Cato held counterterrorism conferences in 2009 and 2010, and there’s more Cato work on counterterrorism and homeland security here.

Can I Have My Airport Back Please?

Even while it was a rumor that President Obama would announce that Osama bin Laden had been killed, Americans began to digest the ramifications, asking, for example, “can I have my airport back please?”

Pleasing though it is to have in contemplation, the question is premature. Students of terrorism, such as those who attended our 2009 and 2010 counterterrorism conferences, know that the killing of bin Laden will have little direct effect on the network he spawned. Its indirect, discouraging effect on terrorism is something I mused about in an earlier post.

What about the effects on the rest of us, the people and actors in our great counterterrorism policymaking apparatus?

Osama bin Laden’s survival helped shore up the mystique of the terrorist supervillain, which has fed counterterrorism excess such as the Transportation Security Administration’s domestic airport security gauntlet. Now that bin Laden is gone, the public will be more willing to carefully balance security and privacy in our free country. By a small, but important margin, courts will be less willing to indulge extravagant government claims about threat and risk.

My friends in the national security bureaucracy may honestly perceive the contraction in their power as carelessness about a threat that they have dedicated their professional lives to combating, but the Declaration of Independence touts security only once, and freedom twice, in the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The counterterrorism debate continues.