We call it mission creep. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) started out as an organization with a mandate to protect Americans from terrorists in the post-9/11 world. The TSA mission on its website is:
The Transportation Security Administration protects the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.
At a forum conducted by National Journal yesterday on aviation security, John Halinski, TSA’s Assistant Administrator for Global Strategies, claimed that the TSA mission was to protect passenger security. Not so. The difference in mission between what one of the administration’s top security executives and the TSA website claims makes a big difference in how the U.S. is spending time and money regarding “ensuring freedom of movement for people and commerce.”
Halinski was asked directly whether there has been even a single instance of an arrest or detention of anyone, in any way, related to terrorism based on airport whole-body scanners. His answer was, “No.” Of course, he then went on to assert that the mere fact that we have these whole-body scanners is keeping terrorists away. (Evidently, terrorists don’t have access to websites that tell them which airports have whole-body scanners and which don’t.)
Halinski also discussed how TSA was working through the new and expanding TSA PreCheck program to limit the amount of time that the public has to spend going through security checks at airports. He explained that based on risk analysis, frequent travelers, those with federal security clearances, military personnel, and Global Entry members will sometimes (not always) be able to pass through security without pulling computers out of bags, without taking off sports coats, without removing shoes. The effort is to save time overall for the public at security checkpoints. Of course, there will still be random checks, pat-downs, and explosive trace checks, even for Pre-Check members.
When I questioned Mr. Halinski about the current TSA searches for prohibited items such as tools of any sort, knives, and boxcutters that were prohibited immediately post-9/11 because the cockpit doors were not yet hardened, he claimed that TSA was protecting the security of passengers by confiscating knives and brass knuckles.
His amazing answer was that though cockpits were now hardened, it was the mission of the TSA to prevent passengers from hitting other passengers with brass knuckles or from engaging in knife flights on a plane — a closed space where such a fight might terrorize passengers.
I followed up Halinski’s answer, noting that this business of protecting passengers from knife fights was a bit of mission creep for TSA. I also stated that in the whole history of the U.S. airline industry there has never been a report of a knife fight between passengers on a plane.
TSA should be the entity that should be pressing for relief from useless security checks that slow down the security process and end up costing the administration hundreds of million of dollars in money and time lost by passengers.
A simple revamping of the forbidden items list could save thousands of hours of searching time and even more time when it comes to passengers waiting. Here is the TSA list, or click through to the link above:
Ice Axes/Ice Picks
Knives – except for plastic or round bladed butter knives
Razor-Type Blades – such as box cutters, utility knives, and safety razor blades (disposable razors and their cartridges are permitted)
Scissors – metal with pointed tips and blades shorter than four inches
Swords – cutting or thrusting weapons, including fencing foils
Bows and Arrows
Realistic Replicas of Firearms
Axes and Hatchets
Drills and drill bits (including cordless portable power drills)
Saws (including cordless portable power saws)
Tools, Wrenches and Pliers (greater than seven inches in length)
Martial Arts & Self Defense Items
Self Defense Sprays – One 4-ounce (118ml) container of mace or pepper spray is permitted in checked baggage provided it is equipped with a safety mechanism to prevent accidental discharge. Self-Defense Sprays containing more than 2% by mass of Tear Gas (CS or CN) are prohibited in Checked Baggage.
Martial Arts Weapons
Stun Guns/Shocking Devices
We at the Consumer Travel Alliance have no argument with limitations on “Guns & Firearms, Explosive & Flammable Materials, Disabling Chemicals & Other Dangerous Items.”
When was the last time a plane was hijacked by a screw gun? When was the last time a passenger was threatened by a wrench?
Has there ever been reported any violence in an airplane caused by martial arts & self-defense items?
Anyone reading should get the idea. Searching for items that were dangerous before the cockpits’ being hardened to withstand even Dirty Harry’s favorite weapon, a .44 magnum, is wasting resources. Those items cannot bring down a plane.
In the interest of “risked-based” security, TSA should be in the lead for changing rules that currently restrict the items I listed above. None of these items are a threat to “freedom of movement for people and commerce.”
• Let’s continue increasing our intelligence operations to prevent future bomb attacks.
• Let’s continue developing PreCheck programs.
• Let’s focus on explosives by expanding the explosive-trace-detection systems at airports rather than leaving them in storage.
• Let’s get rid of invasive whole-body scanners that even the TSA admits have not caught any terrorist.
• Let’s not continue with the fantasy of unproven behavior detection at security checkpoints.
• Let’s limit the minutiae we search for at security checkpoints and only deny passengers from boarding with items that could take an aircraft out of the sky.
If we take these common-sense steps, TSA’s effectiveness will only improve, “security breaches” will drop, the time spent in security lines will decrease, and requests for additional funding can be all but eliminated.
(Cross-posted at ConsumerTraveler.com)