The road to hell is paved with the good intentions of the TSA

Clare Wilkinson
I hear this sentiment frequently from TSA apologists: “The TSA’s intentions are good, so we ought to support what the TSA does.” I can actually appreciate this argument.

It may well be true that every person working for the TSA sincerely believes that irradiating passengers, separating children from their parents and toys, confiscating shampoo, cupcakes, and plastic toy hammers, and sticking their hands down people’s pants makes aviation safer. I’m willing to concede that point and continue with the assumption that the TSA is doing these things because someone believes that doing these things prevents terrorism.

But having said that, I want to argue further that (A) sincere beliefs can be wrong: the TSA is demonstrably failing to keep weapons off planes and failing to identify terrorists, and (B) measures taken to improve safety frequently backfire and either cancel out or in fact increase the risks they are supposed to address, and the TSA is a textbook case.

To point A: loaded guns, a five-pound block of C4, box cutters, and Adam Savage’s 12-inch razor blades are all known to have been carried into the passenger compartments of aircraft since the TSA’s offensive searches began. Just last week, the TSA failed to detect a stun gun in the carry-on of an accused rapist. The latest tests of which we are aware show results such a 70% failure rate to detect weapons and explosives, five out of five guns successfully carried through a body scanner in Dallas, and a man setting off a rather large explosion on German TV with the objects he carried through a body scanner.

The TSA cannot keep weapons off planes even if they could detect all weapons, because everyday objects like shoelaces and credit cards and even one’s bare hands can all be turned into weapons.

The Government Accountability Office (p.46) says behavior detection officers failed to identify 16 known terrorists as they transited airports on 23 separate occasions, as against a success rate of *zero* terrorists identified. The TSA can’t find terrorists or weapons with the methods they’re using.

To point B: Yes, it’s possible for the cure to be worse than the disease! Examples abound: adding road caution signs can increase cognitive load such that the accident rate rises; requiring bicycle helmets raised the accident rate in Australia because the law reduced cycling by one-third, and the smaller number of cyclists on the road were more surprising to motorists; and gated communities meant their gates to keep out crime but found they also compromised rapid emergency response. Security expert Bruce Schneier has written extensively about the unintended consequences of misguided “security.” We’ve quoted him here repeatedly.

The TSA abuses people. Tens of thousands of people.

The TSA causes diversion from the airplanes to the roads, causing 15 deaths for every million passengers diverted.

The TSA endangers people’s health by pressing on injured areas, removing bandages, and contaminating wounds, by demanding that disabled people walk or stand in stress positions — even double-amputees — by confiscating medically necessary supplies, and by breaking insulin pumps and other sensitive medical devices with their scanning machines.

The TSA trains children to let strangers touch their bodies, and re-traumatizes PTSD and rape survivors.

The TSA exposes people needlessly to carcinogenic radiation, of which there is no safe dose.

It’s entirely possible to accept these two statements simultaneously: the TSA has only the best intentions when it searches passengers, and the TSA should be immediately disbanded or at least severely restricted in what it can do to innocent travelers.

(Photo: Claire Wilkinson/Flickr Creative Commons)

  • Robert

    Remember, when you pass through airport security you are in charge of you and yours. Be firm but polite. These people aren’t your owners and as long as you are not disrupting security there isn’t much they can do. I won’t go through their scanners and have only had one pat down which was done correctly and professionally.
    Of course it is obvious that the mere existence of TSA and most other Federal agencies is still unconstitutional.

  • If you treat all civil human beings as criminals, expect them to eventually act accordingly.

  • Susan Richart

    “Just last week, the TSA failed to detect a stun gun in the carry-on of an accused rapist.”

    As well, the highly vaunted BDOs missed him. Two “layers” of “security” failed big time.

  • Drumbabe

    As I’m returning home from business trip today, I was ‘randomingly’ chosen from the PreCheck line to go through the cattle line. (I’m sure it has something to do with my constant complaining about the TSA but no matter…).
    After opting out (as always), when asked if I had sensitive areas prior to the grope, I stated that my 4th Admenment Rights were sensitive to violation. The braintrust-in-blue asked me what that was. I was astonished.
    I guess you have to be ignorant of our Rights in order to commit assault on your fellow citizens.

  • Gordon Barlow

    The TSA’s influence is expanding world-wide, I’m sorry to report. We live in the Caribbean, and the obvious way for our family to visit (and for us to visit them) is via the US. The TSA has already forced the abandonment of that route, and now Britain’s TSA-equivalent is signalling that London might soon be out as a transit point as well.

    I reported – well, ranted about, to be truthful! – the relevant incident on my blogsite earlier this month (“1984 revisited”), if anybody is interested.

    It’s getting difficult for us. Must we come and go via Cuba, next? Maybe so; who knows? For Americans, it must seem utterly bizarre that a Britisher judges Cuba to be safer in any respect than anywhere in the US or Britain itself, as a transit point.

    • Mr. Barlow, please post the link for your blog.

      • Gordon Barlow

        Sorry, Lisa. If you click on my name the link appears in some or all of my replies to other TSA articles. Otherwise, you can Google “Barlow’s Cayman”. Or, all else failing, it’s .

  • There is nothing worse in this world than people insisting they are acting for the good of others.

    • Please throw away your 32-oz drink before you comment.

    • Daisiemae

      We’re from the government, and we’re here to help. Most terrifying words in the English language.

      • TSAisTerrorism

        Well, that and “sidekick”, but I digress…

        • Daisiemae

          You’ll never let me live down my violent outburst, will you?

        • Daisiemae

          You will never let me live down my violent outburst, will you? I can never hold up my head in society again.

  • I’ve pulled the relevant section from the GAO report:

    GAO REPORT QUOTE: Using CBP and Department of Justice information, we examined the travel of key individuals allegedly involved in six terrorist plots that have been uncovered by law enforcement agencies.

    We determined that at least 16 of the individuals allegedly involved in these plots moved through 8 different airports where the SPOT program had been implemented.

    Six of the 8 airports were among the 10 highest risk airports, as rated by TSA in its Current Airport Threat Assessment. In total, these individuals moved through SPOT airports on at least 23 different occasions.

    For example, according to Department of Justice documents, in December 2007 an individual who later pleaded guilty to providing material support to Somali terrorists boarded a plane at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport en route to Somalia to join terrorists there and engage in jihad.

    Similarly, in August 2008 an individual who later pleaded guilty to providing material support to Al-Qaeda boarded a plane at Newark Liberty International Airport en route to Pakistan to receive terrorist training to support his efforts to attack the New York subway system. END QUOTE.

    Keep on fingering Granny — you’re doing a heckuva job!

  • Brava! This post is brilliant for the sheer volume of its fact-presenting and common sense. I do hope many, many people read it.

    • Silly Deborah. Don’t you know that facts and common sense, not to mention logic and empirical evidence in general, are meaningless? Instead, we should spend more time talking about naughty words and “tone.”

  • Fisher1949

    Excellent. Sadly this extensive list is just the tip of iceberg in terms of TSA failures and abuses.

  • Daisiemae

    Awesome article! I hope it gets posted elsewhere.