home > archive > 2003 > this article

The Transportation Security Administration: A report card

By Dallas Pierce
web posted February 3, 2003

It seems a report card is in order. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), passed in November of 2001, established massive new security regulations on commercial air transportation. The only thing odd about the Act was that in an apparent bout of blind 'this'll-never-happen-here-again' machismo, the government forgot that they saddled themselves with the responsibility for aviation security at the beginning of the very same Act. In fact, the lion's share of regulation in the new Act pertains to those measures for which the government itself is responsible. The government has now officially fallen off the continuum of regulation and begun the bizarre practice of regulating itself -- not just forcing regulation on state government -- but regulating itself just as though it were a private entity. And, as with the private sector they lord over, they forgot to check with the industry to see if their regulations were sensible, necessary, or even possible.

To put matters into context, much of the debate over the Act dealt with a significant conceptual problem. Captured in a prominent passage of one of the bills associated with the ASTA was a curious reference to "…the failures of September 11th" [italics added]. Since it was the government that failed to keep the terrorists out of the country, or respond to the tips that they had been training only to commandeer jets once in flight, why would anyone grant it additional responsibility for the failures necessitating the Act in the first place? Either way, someone needs to provide James Pavitt, Deputy Director of Operations for the Central Intelligence Agency, a quick course on effective rhetoric. As late as last week, he continued to deny his agency's role in failing to uncover or thwart the long-planned attacks of 9/11.

Assuming one could clear this conceptual hurdle (a Herculean task), how has the TSA fared with this new task of securing air travel?

Central to the ASTA is government's belief in the necessity of screening all passenger baggage for weapons and explosives. Section 110 established two deadlines for checked baggage screening. The first, 60 days after the Act passed, or on January 18, 2002, all checked baggage had to be "screened by some means." The law listed four possible methods:

1. A bag match program (referred to as PPBM) that insured no checked baggage would be placed aboard an aircraft unless the passenger who checked the bag was also traveling on the same aircraft. How this would have deterred the suicidal terrorists of 9/11 or any other terrorists, the government did not say.
2. A manual search -- impossible to any real extent.
3. A search by canine explosive detection "units" (Here Unit…here Unit!); also impossible to any significant extent -- to say nothing of impractical.
4. "Other means or technology approved by the Under Secretary for Transportation Security." The goal toward which government was…well…aiming itself.

The second deadline, which was on December 31, 2002, clearly required "…that explosive detection systems [are] deployed at all U.S. airports in sufficient numbers to screen all checked baggage." So important was this goal that in July 2002 Congress voted against an amendment to extend what legislators and those in the industry began referring to as "the baggage screening deadline." Simple enough, right? Wrong. The Subcommittee on Aviation Security then made a bizarre public announcement: "The law does not actually require that all checked baggage be screened by that date (although Congress clearly hoped that it would be) only that the explosive detection machines be deployed by that date and when enough machines are deployed, all checked baggage must be screened by them. Until enough machines are in place, alternative means, such as those mentioned above, must be used to screen checked baggage." Wait a minute…wasn't that what needed to happen by January 18, 2002? Stranger still was the fact that the sentence immediately before it repeated the same deadline in exactly the same unequivocal language: "By December 31, 2002, the law requires that enough explosive detection systems be deployed to screen all checked baggage."

So, how'd the government meet their deadline? By answering…you guessed it: What deadline? No one in the media appears too concerned about how many passenger bags are now being subjected to explosive detection technology (EDS), the much less reliable manual search, K-9 inspection, or the highly questionable PPBM.

Always Watching Over You

What's worse, the flying public -- and quite a few of those who don't intend on flying -- will soon be in even greater danger, only this time it won't be from the terrorists alone, it will be with the help of the U.S. government. What's going to happen once the government finishes placing all those EDS directly underneath the centers of all those airports. (They can only continue to cram them into ticket lobbies so long; the numbers required are just too great.) Could they have possibly forgotten what this equipment was for? The last thing anyone should hope for is that the equipment actually does what it was designed to do -- detect a bag full of high explosives. 'EDS'ing' bags in the bowels of the airport will effectively increase, exponentially, the destructive capacity of terrorists, as they move from destroying planes full of people, to destroying airports full. Hey boss, come and take a look at this…

All this would be ok, if there were a need to screen all checked passenger baggage in the first place, but such is simply not the case. Once an intelligent person comes to terms with the fact that anyone could kill anyone anytime, as John Malvo…oops… John Muhammed proved (Like a few of the terrorists on 9/11, Malvo was also here illegally), you begin to focus on those individuals you should be able to detect and thwart -- known international terrorists. The Timothy McVeighs of the world you will be able to do little to detect or prevent.

How about passenger screening, the other critical area to which government tasked itself? Who would know if this were effective? There haven't been any instances of terrorists getting caught at our nation's airport checkpoints (though more than a few law-abiding citizens have been snagged with fingernail clippers and such). The relative calm since 9/11 is hard to analyze with certainty. Were there no attacks because terrorists are on the run; because they've been scared away by preventative measures put into place, or has nothing happened because they've not attempted anything? The question is germane because, as we saw on 9/11, terrorists don't need prohibited items to cause terror. A terrorist prevented from taking weapons aboard an aircraft will resort to other means of carrying out acts of terror: shooting shoulder-launched missiles at our planes, employing deadly biological agents (which the government still cannot detect nor prevent from being taken through checkpoints), or even making quick use of those pilots soon to be carrying weapons on and off U.S. aircraft (Who's idea was this? Secure the cockpit door and arm the pilots?).

How about a trusted traveler program? The ATSA references the establishment of "requirements to implement trusted passenger programs…to expedite the security screening of passengers who participate in such programs". Again, the Act was signed in November of 2001, and since that time there has been no literally no movement on an element of aviation security that plays a crucial role in "…allowing security screening personnel to focus on those passengers who should be subject to more extensive screening," and of course, which allows the public some relief from repetitive and counterproductive screening. Which brings us back to the CIA.

If the CIA does its' job identifying international terrorists and "persons of interest," and efficiently coveys such information to the TSA, much of what they are currently doing in the name of aviation security is largely irrelevant. If the CIA fails, all the law enforcement practices in the world won't be enough to prevent the massive loss of life that's associated with terrorist acts. Much of the money being spent on Homeland Security will prove to be a tax on stupidity if the government doesn't focus on international ne'er-do-wells like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong II through the CIA and Defense.

The TSA…Grade: C-.

Dallas Pierce is the pseudonym of an employee of a major American airline.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • What everyone should know about airport security by Dallas Pierce (July 29, 2002)
    If you think airline security is better this year than last year, Dallas Pierce will tell you differently. How does he know? He works in the airline industry
Printer friendly version
Printer friendly version
Send a link to this page!
Send a link to this story

Printer friendly versionSend a link to this page!

Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!



ESR's anti-gun control gear


1996-2003, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.