What $1 billion won’t buy, and a RAND study of airport security

If you gave me a billion dollars, I’d let you keep your shoes on. But then I’m not TSA head John Pistole. That and more in three quick stories you might have missed:

Item One: John’s Billion-Dollar Morning. In a post last week I mentioned that the TSA had awarded contracts worth a billion dollars in a single day. That’s no typo. John Pistole bought over one billion dollars’ worth of hardware last Tuesday before most of America had ordered lunch.

Imagine the evil and injustice you or I could fight, given a billion dollars.

For comparison, what Pistole spent is almost exactly what the city of Los Angeles will spend on police protection for its 3.8 million residents next year. (At that rate it would take only four more days of spending for Pistole to deplete the annual New York police budget as well).

You could argue that the LAPD really doesn’t provide much value for the money, considering that there will be about 300 homicides in the city this year. On the other hand, the LAPD contend with ongoing gang activity, while the TSA has yet to confront a terrorist. In between celebrity DUI arrests, LAPD somehow still managed to help foil at least one terror plot since 9/11, which is one more than the TSA has exposed.

So what does a billion dollars buy? Surely, for that kind of investment the TSA is getting some kind of Batmanesque crime-fighting tool, right?

Sadly, no. They’re getting baggage scanners, made by two favorite TSA vendors, Morpho Detection and L3 Communications. (Morpho’s CEO, Brad Buswell, is the former head of TSA’s Science and Technology Directorate.)

Morpho and L3 have also been trying to build a scanner that will allow travelers to keep their shoes on at the checkpoint. A year ago, DHS head Janet Napolitano promised that such machines were coming, but last week the TSA said that none of the machines work. John Pistole told the traveling public that they’d be taking their shoes off for the foreseeable future. Apparently a billion dollars isn’t enough to end the TSA’s Barefoot Traveler Program.

Item Two: Told You So. I recently argued that the TSA needs to change its basic approach to passenger screening, dumping the confrontational us-against-America mindset. I said that, among other things, the constant screening of frequent fliers was unnecessary and even counter-productive.

It’s time for the TSA to acknowledge that the vast majority of screeners will never encounter a terrorist. It’s time for the agency to begin with the assumption that every traveler is innocent. PreCheck should be open to anyone, it should be free, and once cleared the traveler should be allowed to skip screening every time. Let’s stop pretending that the nation’s traveling sales force is the biggest threat to security and that you have to screen the same frequent fliers week after week.

In a new report released last week, the highly respected RAND Corporation, an independent research institute, agreed.

Researchers find that “trusted traveler programs”—including the current TSA PreCheck program—are an attractive strategy for making security more efficient and reducing security burdens on some travelers. [But] the effectiveness of a trusted traveler program . . . depends on high participation rates.

RAND went on to add that too much screening is actually counter-productive.

I’ll take this opportunity to say it again: one passenger in a trillion is a threat. Harassing everyone else in an effort to find that guy is catastrophically dumb. (Before you howl, read the full argument, posed here as “Lesson Six.”)

Item Three: Not-So-Common Sense. Pistole wrote in USA Today last week that behavior detection and initiatives like his SPOT program are “simply common sense.”

Remember when the airlines would ask “Did you pack this bag yourself? Has it been with you at all times? Did a stranger give you anything to carry?” We were assured that it wasn’t what you said, it was how you said it. Presumably in terrorist training camps there was a whole curriculum dedicated to teaching insurgents how to say “yes, yes, no” in a measured, self-assured, but non-threatening way.

Pistole’s new “chat downs” are the evolution of this mind-bogglingly-dumb idea. Now a traveler may be asked “Where are you going?” or “What’s the purpose of your trip?” There’s no word on how Pistole’s keen-eyed questioners will differentiate between a nervous salesman sneaking off for an illicit liaison and a guy with a bomb in his sample-case.

RAND had something to say about this technique:

Efforts by security officers to detect suspicious behavior at checkpoints could be made less effective if passenger agitation created by the experience of going through screening masks the indicators those officers attempt to detect. New layers on top of old are costly and can make the aviation system more difficult for passengers and other users.

In other words, the more you hassle passengers, the more on edge everyone is likely to be. That can make behavior detection worthless.

Common sense, John.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/Philip Taylor)

  • Until such time that a large block of lawmakers in both houses of Congress have the political courage to stand up and fight TSA’s security theater clownshow, the rampant abuse of our 4th Amendment Right will continue unabated.

    Sadly, lawmakers have one singular focus….remaining in office. They care not one iota for Americans. Most have abdicated their oath of office…the part that goes “I promise to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States from all enemies foreign and DOMESTIC” by continuing to allow TSA to exist and voting for bills that further rape and pillage our rights.

    While I don’t think it will happen in my lifetime, I wonder if my children/grandchildren will be involved in another Revolution in this country. With each passing day, it seems more and more possible.

    • Calvin, unfortunately, more members of Congress and their families have to be abused. Same with more ordinary Americans. This isn’t what I wish for; it’s what I acknowledge has to happen. Only when enough people personally feel the wrath of the TSA will anything change. And, like you, I don’t think that’s going to happen in my lifetime.

  • So everyone’s a psychologist now? Lol. I’m making a tshirt that says: “I’m an American citizen, traveling within my own country, not breaking any laws.”

  • I worked on military programs that required a minimum of a secret clearance. They still screen me, hassle me and make the travel process miserable to no productive end. Exactly what do they think one of these people is going to figure out that wasn’t found during the clearance process?

    • Phil Weber

      Thanks for saying that, Erin. It’s a perfect demonstration of how utterly misguided the TSA is.

      The obvious implication of screening you, Senator Rand Paul, his father (a presidential candidate), Henry Kissinger, and others is the suggestion that the highest levels of our government have been infiltrated by al Qaeda.

      If that’s the case — if there are terrorists among the 100 sitting members of the US Senate — we have bigger problems than air safety.

    • Public_Man

      Imagine how you’d feel if you were had a TS clearance with special access(es).

  • RonBonner

    “In other words, the more you hassle passengers, the more on edge everyone is likely to be. That can make behavior detection worthless.”

    I reject TSA’s Behavior Detection Officer program. It is clearly un-American to have to explain why, where, or any other questions about ones travels to a government employee.

    No one should have to tell some stranger of questionable character anything about their personal business. No one.

    If John S. Pistole’s TSA Behavior Detection Program tells us anything it is simply that Pistole does not support the United States Constitution.

    • Your hostile tone and insistence upon your rights makes me suspicious of you. I’m afraid you’re going to have to go to Secondary Screening….

    • LeeAnneClark

      “No one should have to tell some stranger of questionable character anything about their personal business. No one.”

      Especially when there is ample evidence that some of those TSOs asking the questions are going to be rapists, pedophiles, or criminals of some ilk. I sure as hell don’t want to be giving out personal information about where I’m going and what I’m doing to some twisted scumbag who may come after me and flash his fake tin badge at me to rape me (as was done by TSO Harold Glen Rodman).