More thoughts on the TSA Gallup poll

In the course of my lifetime I’ve had more than a passing acquaintance with ham sandwiches. To my knowledge, not a single one has ever committed a crime.

Yet Sol Wachtler, former Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, famously quipped that a grand jury would “indict a ham sandwich” if that’s what you wanted. Wachtler had so little faith in the grand jury system that in 1985 he proposed doing away with it completely. New York has yet to do so, but in their hearts most lawyers agree with Wachtler. Whenever they’re accused of a crime, they invariably invoke the “ham sandwich defense,” as former House Speaker Tom Delay did when he was indicted on ethics charges in 2004.

I thought about Wachtler as I read a new report from Gallup, the polling company, this week. Bill Fisher has already written an excellent analysis of the poll, which I wholeheartedly endorse, but I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own.

According to Gallup, 54% of the U.S. public thinks the TSA is doing either an excellent or a good job of handling security screening at airports. At the same time, 41% think TSA screening procedures are extremely or very effective at preventing acts of terrorism on U.S. airplanes, with most of the rest saying they are “somewhat effective.” Gallup surveyed 1,014 adults, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.

On its face, that seems pretty damning to the TSA’s critics, and I’d wager that the agency will soon seize on these results as evidence that things are just fine, as they did with a survey by the Travel Leaders Group earlier this year.

Let me say at the outset that I don’t doubt the quality of Gallup’s work. Like most modern polling organizations, they have become adept at random sampling techniques and have learned to weight responses to remove sampling abnormalities. In fact, the Gallup poll makes a mockery of the earlier Travel Leaders survey, conducted primarily through Facebook and Twitter, which showed overwhelming support for the TSA. According to Gallup, a small majority support TSA, not the two-thirds that Travel Leaders reported. (Is it really any surprise that Travel Leaders Group, one of North America’s largest travel companies, wants Americans to think that travel is safe and that the friendly folks at TSA are making it so?)

So what gives? For starters, look at what Gallup asked:

  • Thinking now about the TSA, the government agency that handles security screening at U.S. airports, do you think the TSA is doing an excellent, good, only fair, or poor job?
  • How effective do you think the TSA’s screening procedures are at preventing acts of terrorism on U.S. airplanes – extremely effective, very effective, somewhat effective, not too effective, or not effective at all?

That’s it, just two questions, plus demographic background information: age, sex, ethnicity, whether or not there is a child under 18 living at home, and how often the respondent has flown.  No one was asked whether the agency is too bloated, whether it wastes money, or whether TSA has too many criminals in its midst. Gallup didn’t ask if Americans thought the TSA’s methods were an invasion of privacy or if there were other less-invasive ways to produce the same results.

If I’m being honest, I’d have answer that the TSA is at least “somewhat” effective. With 20 delicious layers of security funded by $8 billion in taxes each year, it would take a monumental effort to be anything less than at least “somewhat” effective. A sternly worded sign at every gate would be at least “somewhat” effective. While I think the TSA is not nearly effective enough (especially considering its size and budget), my primary gripe is the agency’s unnecessarily invasive screening. The Gallup survey is certainly not a vindication of those methods.

Moreover, while the Gallup headline announces that 54% of Americans think the TSA is doing a good or excellent job, 42% think their work is “only fair” or downright poor. The number of screeners at American airports has ballooned from 28,000 in 2001 to over 60,000 today, according to the TSA’s own report. The mere presence of so many blue-shirted government employees could improve security, however slightly, so it’s not surprising that 86% of Americans think that the TSA is at least “somewhat effective.”

Yes, 54% rate the agency positively, but when (as we’re constantly told) terrorists only have to get it right one time, it’s disconcerting that 4 in 10 people think the TSA is operating below par. (Imagine if you doubled your child’s study time or the number of tutors, but that 42% of his teachers still gave him grades below passing. Would you keep those same tutors for another year or try something else?)

Gallup says that frequent fliers are even more supportive of the TSA than other Americans, but there’s a catch here, too. According to the pollsters:

Younger Americans have significantly more positive opinions of the TSA than those who are older. These differences may partly reflect substantial differences in flying frequency, with 60% of 18- to 29-year-olds reporting having flown within the last year, compared with 33% of those 65 years and older.

The fact is, 18- to 29-year-olds, accustomed as they are to posting every event in their lives on social media, are far less concerned about privacy (though I would argue that they should be, and eventually will be as they age). We’ve read plenty about the Death of Privacy over the last decade, and the youngest among us have spent the greatest proportions of their lives in an age where everything they say or do is open to public scrutiny. If by “frequent flier” Gallup also means those who came of age in the post-privacy era, and if privacy is really the biggest slam against TSA, it’s no wonder that frequent fliers are OK with today’s airport screening.

Anyone who pays attention to political polling, by Gallup and others, knows that there is a difference between “all Americans” and “registered voters” and the even more precise “likely voters.” Gallup commented on this distinction in a 2008 article that noted that Democrat John Kerry had a two-point lead among registered voters going into the 2004 presidential election.  Among likely voters, George W. Bush was ahead by the same margin. Bush won the election by two points, exactly as predicted by the likely-voter sample.

This distinction raises a natural question: whom did Gallup survey when it asked about TSA? As I’ve said, their definition of “frequent fliers” is somewhat flawed; but even so, that’s not who they targeted. They didn’t even ask plain old “travelers.” Just adults, aged 18 or more, in the United States.

In fact, almost half (48%) of the respondents in Gallup’s survey have not been on a plane in the last year. Call me a snob, but I prefer to get my travel advice from people who travel. A lot.

So let’s recast the Gallup press release: “In a survey of fliers and non-fliers, those who care the least about privacy issues voiced the greatest support for the TSA, and a large majority of all respondents think the agency must be doing at least something to improve security.”

Doesn’t seem quite as punchy, does it?

Which brings me back to ham sandwiches. Prosecutors are symbols of authority; they represent the collective power of our society. A grand jury is naturally predisposed to want to believe them. To do otherwise is to say that we don’t trust the machinery of our own government.

So, too, we desperately want to believe that our airports are secure. Who among us really wants to think that a decade after 9/11 we’re still vulnerable? And so, when our politicians (who, with some notable exceptions, are at worst worthless on the TSA and at best mute) and the giant PR machine of the agency itself assure us that the TSA is doing its job, 54% of Americans  cross their fingers and say, “I’d have to agree.”

Among judges, Sol Wachtler had the courage and audacity to say, in so many words, “the system doesn’t work and in your heart you know it.” Those who know the truth about the TSA need to do the same.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Kirti Poddar)