Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why the TSA needs to be dramatically overhauled

I know that I've complained about the TSA before. I need to do so again. The TSA is structurally broken.

Allow me an analogy.

I think we can all agree that the acceptable number of murders in, say, Chicago, is zero, that even one murder is one too many.

In that vein, imagine if we proposed that in order to reduce the number of Chicago murders to zero, we are going to impose the following new policies:
  • No weapons of any kind, or things that could be weaponized (steak knives, for example) are allowed within city limits.
  • Because arson could lead to murder, we ban all flammable liquids within Chicago. For good measure, though, since we can't easily distinguish flammable from non-flammable, we disallow any other liquids over 3oz from being taken into the city.
  • Every person, without exception, is subject to a full search of everything in their possession in order to enter the city. They can refuse, but will be denied entry if they do.
  • For good measure, a bunch of people who we think might be associated with gangs, or otherwise just don't seem right to us, will simply be prohibited from entering Chicago. The list of these people will be secret, and there is no recourse if you find yourself denied entry into Chicago.
This might achieve the goal of reducing the number of murders to zero (then again, it might not). But I think we can all agree that these restrictions would be ridiculous overkill (pardon the pun) to the murder problem, and an unreasonable restriction on people's rights.

Yet substitute "airline system" for "Chicago", and "terrorism" for "murder" (not that there's any meaningful outcome difference on the latter substitution) and it's exactly what we have with the TSA. Why do we treat these two situations differently?

It should not be surprising that the TSA is a one-way ratchet to increasingly intrusive and unreasonable "security" procedures. After all, we've given the TSA a single goal: zero tolerance for any sort of security threat. If they think of anything that could be exploited and don't do something to address it, they will be blamed, yet there is little or no incentive to put limits on how intrusive these procedures are, nor any reason to evaluate their efficacy. (And of course, the TSA is famous for thinking up new threats only after somebody has tried it, not before). As a result, first we take our shoes off, then we can't take liquids on board, now we have a choice between giving up our right to travel or giving up our right to be free from unreasonable searches.

So now we have full-body scanners and/or intrusive pat downs. Is there any evidence that these actually enhance security? Have they found any bad guys with the new procedures and technology that they would have missed with the old metal detectors?

Perhaps, although I certainly haven't heard of it in the news. So at the moment, the hypothesis that "The TSA is effective at providing security" seems to me to be without data to support it. One might argue that we haven't had a terrorist attempt to do anything with an airplane originating in the US (the TSA's jurisdiction) since 9/11, and therefore the TSA is doing its job. But I'd counter that with the observation that we hadn't had a hijacking or similar incident with a US-originated flight in the 20+ years prior to 9/11 either (pre-TSA), which is more than double the current lifetime of the TSA, so I don't think a 10-year absence of airline terror in the presence of the TSA proves that they're doing their job.

In fact, I have an alternative hypothesis: it is not the TSA that has kept the skies safe. Rather, it is old-fashioned intelligence gathering and alert passengers. In fact, I can think of 3 attempts to commit an act of terrorism on an airplane in the past several years. One was the plot to blow up airplanes over the ocean using liquid explosives, while the other two were the shoe-bomber and the underwear-bomber. The first, of course, was thwarted by intelligence, long before the TSA would have gotten involved, while the latter two were missed by TSA-equivalents in other countries (the flights didn't originate in the US) and were thwarted by alert passengers.

I recognize that my examples here are anecdotal and don't actually prove anything, but they also don't support the idea that the TSA is actually effectively thwarting terrorism, and they certainly are suggestive that my alternative hypothesis could very well be the accurate one.

I'd love to hear any sort of counter argument supporting the argument that the TSA is providing any meaningful value.

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