Missing the Point

One aspect of the TSA debate I find hilarious as a libertarian is that we get to see yet another example of partisans switching sides on an issues based on whose team is in the White House.  Since when have Republicans had this deeply held concern about liberty and privacy vs. security against terrorism.  And now leftie Kevin Drum steps up to say that all the extract screening makes sense (to my college roommate Brink Lindsey:  Sorry, but the whole liberaltarian thing is a myth.  When in power, they seem to act just as authoritarian on social and civil rights issues as Conservatives).

Anyway, Drum is certainly not full-bore backing the TSA, but he does write

I hate the TSA screening process. Everyone hates the TSA screening process. You'd be crazy not to. It's intrusive, annoying, and time-wasting. It treats us all like common criminals even though most of us are just ordinary schlubs trying to get on a plane and go somewhere.

But guess what? The fact that you personally are annoyed "” you! an educated white-collar professional! "” doesn't mean that the process is idiotic. I've heard it called "security theater" so many times I'd be rich if I had a nickel for each time it popped up in my browser, but although the anti-TSA rants are often cathartic and amusing, they've never made much sense to me. All the crap that TSA goes through actually seems pretty clearly directed at improving the security of air travel.

The point is not, as implied by Drum, that current TSA screening isn't protection against certain types of threats. Let's be generous and assume that the TSA's screening, generally concocted in a barn-door approach after someone tries a particular approach, is effective at catching the threats it is designed to catch.

The point is that nearly anyone with a room temperature IQ can think of 20 ways to attack an airplane that is not covered by the screening. If there are, say, a hundred imaginable threats, how much privacy do you want to give up to protect yourself from 35 of them?

For example, you know what is in the cargo hold below your seat? The US Mail. You know how much screening is performed on the US Mail? Zero. How hard would it be to wire up a package with a bomb and an altimeter, or perhaps just a noise sensor, and send it off airmail.  They screen the crap out of your bags and body and then throw them on the plane right next to a bunch of anonymous, unscrutinized cargo.  And that is just one example.


  1. Foxfier:

    Most of the Republicans I know were sick of security theater when Bush was in-- it's a waste of time and resources.

    It didn't involve technology based strip searches of "random" folks or deliberately offensive forms of pat-downs.

    Amusingly, the only person I know who supports the scanners is a pot-and-porn libertarian. (as opposed to a guns-and-disband-congress libertarian)

    Another big hole is the folks HANDLING your cargo-- the guys throwing your screened bag next to the mail aren't given a whole lot of security coverage, either.

    I've been expecting, each year, as the lines grow longer... there's going to be an attack on the security check point. My mind keeps flashing images of the pictures I've seen of that pizza parlor attack in Israel. It's such an OBVIOUS gathering point. Nobody would even remark much, no matter how much "luggage" you brought up.... *shudder* There's a dozen different ways it could very easily be worked.

  2. Xmas:

    I got asked if I had any toner or printer cartridges today. That was a new question for sure...

  3. DHL:

    Cargo (including US mail) is screened, but in different ways and sometimes not as thoroughly.

  4. NeoWayland:

    And then there are the bio-weapon possibilities.

    Put a few infectious people on a coast to coast flight with one or two stopovers.

    The only way to stop that is blood screening. That takes a few days.

  5. stan:

    Warren likes to lump all Republicans or all Democrats into single, uniform parties with everyone in the party jointly and severally liable (intellectually) for every one of the worst or most extreme sins of any other person who runs under the same party label. I think he knows it's a logical fallacy, but he's grown so attached to the enjoyment he gets from using it that he can't quit.

  6. ettubloge:

    Stan is right. While grabbing my junk and other methods are intrusive, innefficient and mere mirage, there are "security" precautions that do work. In Israel they profile and pick out those fitting certain suspect criteria for intense scrutiny while leaving the nuns alone. I am unsure if the security is by government or El Al. But something more than nothing is needed. As I do recall something occurring in the late summer of 2001 that warranted a change.

  7. chris:

    actually, 100% of all cargo on passenger aircraft is being screened as of August 3, 2010: http://www.tsa.gov/what_we_do/tsnm/air_cargo/programs.shtm.

    but i understand your point.

  8. TheOtherRic:

    Actually actually chris, Implementing the Recommendations of the 9/11 Act of 2007 (your link) is the legislative requirement for screening 100% of air cargo. I am able to find NO indication from ANY .gov or .com website that this legislative requirement is being met.

  9. A Friend:

    You might find this interesting about the x-ray machines - they put all the radiation in to the first millimeter of your skin, but the danger levels are calibrated on them spreading out the radiation all the way through you body. These things might actually be dangerous. http://www.npr.org/assets/news/2010/05/17/concern.pdf

  10. John Moore:

    Sorry, but the charge of hypocrisy is misplaced. The new TSA actions have simply crossed a threshold. If it were under Bush, the same people would be unhappy (although the left would be dreaming up conspiracy theories).

    This Republic has no problems with Obama waterboarding appropriate suspects and blowing away terrorists with missiles.

  11. me:

    Here's how the Israelis view US security.


    IMHO, the TSA is wasting tax dollars on an unproductive net-negative undertaking. I am sad to see what we as a nation see as the most important investment targets - wars in third world nations, drug enforcement, security theater when we're not actively busy devaluing our own currency.

  12. Rob T:

    According to the GAO, the TSA was not on track to achieving its mandate of scanning cargo & shipments by Aug:


    This document also reveals that the TSA hasn't provided any evidence that the AIT machines would have caught the underwear bomber (nevermind that the guy had no passport and got on a plane anyway). It also shows that before last xmas, these machines were being implemented as secondary screening devices, not primary.

    It also mentions the "puffers" - those boxes that were deployed in airports in '06 without adequate testing (in response to threat of suicide bombers) and turned out not to work.

    TSA's track record with testing and deploying tech ain't all that hot. Even if the specs of the backscatter machines are safe, I have a hard time trusting an org with a track record of utter failure when they get antsy.

    Another vector: municipal airports, some with long-range private jets that have no TSA. See the already-forgotten Austin crash earlier this year. Or someone creating a home-made rocket launcher and taking potshots near a runway.

    Airplanes simply won't get a lot of bang for the terrorist buck. The failure of 9/11 was that no one (in a decision making position) seriously considered commercial airlines being used as attack vectors like that. The chances of that kind of hijacking happening again are small not because of TSA, but because everyone is now wary. When bombers get through, it's because clues in the existing system are being ignored, not because the procedures don't exist.

    I'd expect terrorists now to be studying drug dealers in an attempt to get a dirty bomb into the states undetected and hitting a major venue that could be an airport during a holiday. Before the security checkpoint.

    Hell, they could steal a mobile AIT, up the voltage and see if they can cause random radiation poisoning at a distances, parked in public places. I sound like a whacko even to myself with this idea, but now that I know our government can do it, then so can someone else.

  13. epobirs:

    If I were running things, one of my big concerns would be who has access to clean rooms. That is, controlled climate facilities with extremely low particulate counts, as used in semiconductor production. If I wanted to slip an explosive device past security, I'd want to build it in a clean room where I could ensure there was no detectable residue on the exterior for a dog or electronic sniffer to pick up.

    As for the container, well, just consider the interior volume of a DTR-type portable PC with the innards removed and an extremely compact ultra-light notebook used to create the illusion of a functional computer. From what my acquaintances in the chip industry tell me, DHS hasn't shown any interest and the security revolves around industrial espionage/sabotage. Even with the 'Jiffy-Pop' cargo containers now in use I'm pretty sure such an item or multiples could have a serious effect.

    But no, we have to be on guard against grandmas of Swedish descent who've secretly taken up radical Islamic beliefs. Kevin Drum, as always, is a dolt. It doesn't matter how many times you've heard the phrase 'security theater' if it's true.