The Limitations of the TSA
Protecting Yesterday's Targets against
There's not a single piece of sense and even less
commonsense shown in the screening of this old man and his
Doing this wastes security resources that could be more
meaningfully deployed elsewhere.
Part 3 of a series on
alternative and better approaches to US airport security.
Links to other articles in the series at the bottom.
The 50,000 TSA screeners
tasked with protecting primarily our airports contrast with
maybe a mere three or four thousand FBI agents tasked with
counter-terrorism duties to protect the entire balance of our
country from other forms of terrorist attack.
Are we putting too much
resource into the TSA, and is the resource we are placing there
And if we are putting too much
resource into the TSA, how should our money and our manpower be
The Terrorist Threat Against
the United States
Terrorists wish to destroy the United States, its citizens, its
way of life, and its global influence.
Yes, back in 2001 they
perceived an easy and good way of doing this was to fly planes
into high profile buildings. Indeed, they were completely
correct in that perception.
The ramifications from that
very low-tech attack are still rippling through our society,
which has become massively more paranoid and appreciably less
free. The economic cost can be measured in the trillions
of dollars - especially if one costs in the wars we have waged
in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As a result of these
attacks, a new government organization, the TSA (Transportation
Security Administration) was formed, and
it now has 50,000 front line staff protecting primarily our
airports and lesserly other aspects of the nation's
As much as one might (and
does!) criticize the TSA, the happy outcome is there has
not been any further successful act of terrorism involving our
aviation industry. It is unclear whether that means the
TSA is perfectly 100% effective, or if there is some other
explanation for this blessed lack of subsequent attacks on our
But what of the rest of the
country? How is it protected against future acts of
The FBI have 14,000 special
agents, who are split amongst eight different areas of
operation. Yes, counter-terrorism is one of these eight
areas, but most agents are assigned to the other seven
departments - counter-intelligence,
cyber-crime, public corruption, civil rights, organized crime,
white collar crime and violent crime/major thefts.
So a few thousand FBI agents
are the largest part of what we have to protect every remaining part of the nation
from terrorism, whereas we've created an entire new department
with 50,000 frontline employees and who knows how many more
administrative staff just to harass passengers passing through our airports and
getting onto airplanes.
Does something seem a bit
unbalanced to you?
Let's now look at whether
airport security really truly should have 25 times more resource
than security for the rest of the country all put together.
Airport Security - Mindless
Airport security measures
are a last
ditch, desperate, inefficient and incomplete defense against
terrorist attacks on our aviation system.
As you well know from your
own travels, the TSA screeners at the airport know nothing about
(and care less about) any of us, and are concentrated merely on routine mindless tasks
of telling us to remove liquids, gels, computers, shoes,
jackets, and just about everything else, of shepherding us
through the long lines, telling us when to go through the metal
detector and when to wait, and of managing an endless stream of
plastic tubs that cycle through the X-ray machines.
As long as the metal
detector doesn't beep and as long as the X-ray machine reveals
the usual blur of objects superimposed on each other, the TSA
staff barely glance at us. Their job is done - they've
made sure we've removed our shoes and so on, there's no metal on
our person and they've given the stuff passing through the X-ray
machine a quick 'once over'.
Sure, there are the much
vaunted TSA 'Behavioral Detection Officers' - thousands of TSA
staff who are supposed to be identifying suspicious people in
the airport, but they've yet to detect a single terrorist, while
hassling ordinary innocent people by the thousands.
There you are, anxious about
your flight, weather problems, a tight connection, and excited
about what lies ahead at your destination, and you're suddenly
pulled over by a TSA BDO for extra questioning and possibly
screening because they think you are nervous or anxious or
But the cool calm terrorist,
resolved to 'meet his maker' and looking forward to the virgins
promised him in heaven walks past the BDO without them giving
him even a second glance (for fear of profiling, probably).
The Mindless Routine Doesn't
There are many problems with
this mindless routine approach to security. Some we've already discussed
earlier in this series, exposed in our weekly 'Security Horror Stories'
and reported on in other articles in this section of the website.
Most relevant of all however
is the stark fact that the TSA completely does not effectively
succeed in detecting explosives and guns being smuggled through
this report refers to the TSA
failing to spot 20 out of 22 weapons and explosives in one test,
failing to spot 50 out of 70 explosives in a second test, and
failing to spot 45 out of 75 in a third test. The TSA
generally attempts not to disclose the results of tests of its
security screening, calling them a national security secret.
Failure levels such as this
is more like a national security shame.
TSA - the Last Chance to Catch
Now - here's where it gets
even more important. The airport screening is the last
chance to intercept a terrorist before he gets on the plane.
The TSA is doing so phenomenally poorly as to not even spot half the weapons and explosives smuggled past it, and once the
terrorist has got past that ineffective screening, he is then
free to board a plane and do whatever he wishes with the things
he has smuggled through security.
Sure, the TSA loves to talk about its
multiple layers of security, but basically all its layers are at
the airport, and as these studies show, massively fail to
Air Marshals - Unnecessary
There are no additional
layers of security to give us an extra chance at preventing the
terrorist once they have reached the airport. Okay, so
maybe there is a one chance in a hundred or less that the flight
has a couple of Air Marshal's on board, but the Air Marshals are
protecting us against a threat that has largely gone away -
terrorists trying to take over a plane with guns or box cutters
Hardened cockpit doors,
armed pilots, and a change in standard procedures so pilots now
will never surrender their plane to terrorists have largely
neutralized that threat/risk without the need for Air Marshals
It is no surprise that Air
Marshals have never apprehended any terrorists or prevented any
airborne hijacking. The only person they have shot was a
mentally deranged person, and they shot him in the back (and
killed him) as he was attempting to leave a plane on the ground.
These days the terrorist
threat is primarily one of suicide bombers trying to blow up a
plane, and there is nothing an Air Marshal can do to prevent
that (assuming that, for a change, the terrorists finally get
their bombs to explode properly).
TSA Security - Even if it Did
Work - Is Only for Transportation
Let's talk about another
problem. The Transportation Security Administration is
charged with protecting, as best it inadequately can, our
transportation infrastructure; and to date most of its focus has
been on airports.
More than the limitation of
being focused only on transportation, and primarily on
commercial passenger aviation, the TSA is a backward looking
organization focused on defending against yesterday's threats,
while, unfortunately, terrorists are forward looking and
continue to devise new ways of attacking us.
Look at the chronology of
events in the 2000s.
The TSA Attempts to Prevent
Past Threats, not Future Threats
The reason we got a TSA in
the first place is because of 9/11 and the hijacking of planes
that occurred on that morning. As a result, a huge new
government department was created, tasked with the primary
mission of protecting us from terrorists armed with box cutters
(which, prior to that time, we could take on planes perfectly
For good measure, not only
could we no longer take box cutters onto planes, but neither
also could we take small pocket knives, scissors, knitting
needles, and all sorts of other 'dangerous' implements, and
those of us fortunate enough to be seated up front had to dine
with plastic rather than metal cutlery.
Mercifully, some common
sense has now prevailed, and first class passengers can now use
metal cutlery, but you still can't take even a tiny pocket knife
onto a plane (or a charm bracelet containing a half inch plastic
Next, when a terrorist smuggled a
bomb in his shoe onto a plane, the TSA started to look at shoes,
too. Prior to that time, we did not have our shoes
And then, when a terrorist group in
Britain were intercepted prior to smuggling explosive liquids
onto planes, the TSA started looking at liquids. Prior to
that time, there were no limits on liquids.
After a terrorist hid a
bomb in his crotch, the TSA scrambled to deploy Whole Body
Imaging devices so they can stare at everyone's crotch
electronically. Prior to that time, the TSA was very
careful not to pat people down around their sensitive personal
areas (even though it obviously offered terrorists a safe place
to hide explosives).
Do you see the pattern here?
Let me spell it out. The TSA is always reacting to what
the terrorists do, and is adapting to defend us against each
threat - but only after the threat has been attempted by a
Do you see the rest of the
pattern, too? Each time the TSA tries to close a loophole,
the terrorists open a different loophole which, until that time,
the TSA had not thought about and not attempted to protect us
The TSA is a totally
reactive agency, and is focused on protecting us against
yesterday's threats. Terrorists are forward looking and as
each vulnerability is reduced, they exploit a new vulnerability.
The Rest of Our Country is at
The TSA (thank goodness) has no role protecting anything other
than transportation infrastructure (although as part of its
empire building it is attempting to define that
concept as widely as possible).
The TSA does not, will not,
and can not, protect other things in our life and society against
terrorist threat. Shopping malls. Churches.
Sports stadiums. Schools. Town water supplies.
Gas pipelines. And so on - these are all completely unprotected.
It is far from impossible
that perhaps one day the TSA security at airports might become
sufficiently challenging as to cause terrorist groups to give
up, accepting defeat when it comes to attacks on aviation, and
choosing instead to attack
some other less well protected part of the nation.
This is not just
hypothesizing, and it is not futuristic either. We have already seen
three recent examples of this, one successful and two
The successful attack was in
November 2009, by the Muslim Major who killed 13 people and
wounded 30 others at Fort Hood (he was successful in large part
because the Army doesn't allow its soldiers to carry their
weapons on base!).
The first high profile
failed attack was in May 2010 when a Muslim attempted to explode
a bomb in a SUV parked in Times Square, New York.
The second failed attack did
not make quite such headlines, because the bomber was already
being manipulated and controlled by the FBI. This was in
Portland, OR, when yet another Muslim was foiled in his plan to
set off a bomb in a van at a downtown Christmas Tree lighting
ceremony attended by tens of thousands of people.
Terrorists are adapting and
shifting their focus. There is no universal law of
terrorism that limits them only to attacking airplanes.
The TSA Can't Help the Rest of
The TSA can't help us in
such cases, and we should all be thankful they can't, because
their 'help' would be in the form of further intrusive and
encroachments on our liberty and our ability to freely move, mix
and mingle as we choose, with or without boxcutters and liquids,
and definitely without X-ray screening of us on any sort of
Conceivably, as our nation
feels more and more at risk, we might see the growth of other
agencies to protect other vulnerabilities. We already have
an agency that protects federal buildings. Maybe we'll get
a federal sports security agency to secure sports arenas.
Maybe the Department of Education will get a Security division
to protect schools. And so on and so on.
Last Ditch Point Defense is Not
But no matter how many
hundreds of thousands of extra security guards we employ, and no
matter how many different places we deploy them, they all suffer
from being an undiscriminating 'last ditch' defense against a
single threat that has been pre-defined. It is impossible
to protect our society 100% against all threats by means of ever
growing numbers of 'point protection' services defending against
specific threats to specific locations.
Fortunately, there is a
better way to do this. For more information on this,
please continue on to the next part in this series.
This is part of a
series on alternatives to present airport security.
Please also see :
Israeli style airport security
2. Profiling passengers
3. The Limitations of the
5. General counter-terrorism measures
6. Sundry other ideas (coming soon)
Related Articles, etc
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24 Dec 2010, last update
21 Jul 2020
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