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The TSA are doomed to continually 'protect' us against yesterday's threats, and seem incapable of anticipating tomorrow's new threats.

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The Limitations of the TSA

Protecting Yesterday's Targets against Yesterday's Threats

There's not a single piece of sense and even less commonsense shown in the screening of this old man and his shoes.

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 even effective?

And if we are putting too much resource into the TSA, how should our money and our manpower be better deployed?

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 transportation infrastructure.

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 nation's aviation.

But what of the rest of the country?  How is it protected against future acts of terrorism?

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 Routine

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 suspicious.

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 Work

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 security.

For example, 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 a Terrorist

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 function.

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 or whatever.

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 at all.

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 legally).

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 gun charm).

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 screened separately.

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 extra threat - but only after the threat has been attempted by a terrorist.

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 against.

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 Risk Too

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 unsuccessful.

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 Country

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 ineffective 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 random basis.

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 the Answer

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 :

1.  Israeli style airport security
2.  Profiling passengers
3.  The Limitations of the TSA
4.  Protecting Airports
5.  General counter-terrorism measures
6.  Sundry other ideas (coming soon)

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 24 Dec 2010, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.



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