Time for the TSA to go?

Cyn­i­cism over the agency’s com­pe­tence has long since been sur­passed by its record: a 95% fail­ure rate in de­tect­ing weapons.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By John R. Schindler John R. Schindler is a se­cu­rity con­sul­tant and a for­mer Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer. He tweets at @20com­mit­tee.

Even the most cyn­i­cal crit­ics of the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, per­haps the most un­pop­u­lar or­ga­ni­za­tion in the whole U.S. gov­ern­ment, must have been sur­prised by the re­cent rev­e­la­tions. Ac­cord­ing to a leaked in­ter­nal re­port, TSA Red Team mem­bers, whose job is to test per­for­mance, were able to get past se­cu­rity with hid­den weapons on 67 out of 70 oc­ca­sions, or 95% of the time.

The shock of this leak has caused a ruckus in­side the Belt­way. The TSA’s act­ing direc­tor has been “re­as­signed” — a rare step for an ad­min­is­tra­tion that has dif­fi­culty fir­ing any­one for any­thing.

If you’re ask­ing why the TSA ex­ists at all right now, you’re not alone. In the same week that the do­mes­tic sur­veil­lance com­po­nent of the Pa­triot Act has been scaled back, it’s worth pon­der­ing whether the TSA, an­other post-9/11 cre­ation, needs to be mended, or per­haps even ended.

Many regular trav­el­ers are ir­ri­tated by the TSA. They dis­like hav­ing to re­move their shoes and belts and liq­uids even though it’s obvi- ous they pose no threat. I’ve never seen a nun get a pat-down, but I, like most fre­quent f liers, have wit­nessed TSA silli­ness on mul­ti­ple oc­ca­sions. And I have been sub­jected to in­ter­ro­ga­tion by TSA of­fi­cials while trav­el­ing for the U.S. gov­ern­ment, car­ry­ing a diplo­matic pass­port, even as for­eign­ers who looked like ex­tras in a B-movie about Al Qaeda went on their way, un­ques­tioned.

Hardly any of the TSA’s rules have to do with real air­line se­cu­rity. As a pro­fes­sional in the coun­tert­er­ror­ism field, I watch TSA in­spec­tors do­ing their job and mostly shake my head. “This is not an air­line se­cu­rity sys­tem,” opined the for­mer head of se­cu­rity for El Al about the TSA: “This is a sys­tem for both­er­ing peo­ple.”

In com­par­i­son with the air­line se­cu­rity pro­grams of many close U.S. al­lies in Europe and the Mid­dle East, who were grap­pling with the threat of ter­ror­ism long be­fore 9/11, TSA ef­forts ap­pear com­i­cal and in­ef­fec­tive in equal mea­sure.

It would be one thing if the TSA were an­noy­ing pas­sen­gers and, si­mul­ta­ne­ously, keep­ing them safe. But the new leak sug­gests that it’s only pro­fi­cient at the for­mer, and that it’s there­fore a gi­ant waste of tax­payer dol­lars.

Much TSA dys­func­tion can be at­trib­uted to its de­vo­tion to tech­nol­ogy as a panacea, which is a very Amer­i­can trait. Skep­tics of­ten note that we need to be­come more like Is­rael, mean­ing we need to em­brace pro­fil­ing — not the lat­est ma­chines — as the main fac­tor in de­tect­ing threats to air­lin­ers.

Although there is some­thing to this, and the TSA cer­tainly should rely more on pro­fil­ing, there is no way that lit­tle Is­rael’s se­cu­rity pro­to­col for its few air­ports can be tem­plated onto our vast, con­ti­nent-wide travel sys­tem.

The Is­raeli method, which in­volves rig­or­ous ques­tion­ing of pas­sen­gers, does not scale.

So what does re­form look like? A re­vamped TSA must fo­cus on qual­ity, not just quan­tity, of per­son­nel. And it must aban­don the in­ef­fi­cient as­sem­bly-line ap­proach in fa­vor of in­tel­li­gence-driven screen­ing. Ter­ror­ists are evolv­ing and learn­ing; we need to evolve and learn too.

I’ve given dozens of talks on ter­ror­ism over the years, and the only line that is guar­an­teed ap­plause from any au­di­ence is com­plain­ing about the TSA. But I’d feel re­miss if I didn’t note that there’s some­thing danger­ous about the way the TSA’s dys­func­tion came to light: an unau­tho­rized leak.

Most of the things that fans of Ed­ward Snow­den be­lieve about the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency — that it’s cal­lous to­ward cit­i­zens, capri­cious in its au­thor­i­ties and in­suf­fi­ciently re­spect­ful of rights — can be more plau­si­bly said to be true about the TSA.

Nev­er­the­less, ev­ery leak car­ries risks. Do we re­ally want ter­ror­ists, who still ex­ist and re­main highly in­ter­ested in blow­ing up West­ern air­lin­ers, to know pre­cisely how in­ef­fec­tive the TSA ac­tu­ally is?

As the se­cu­rity ex­pert Bruce Sch­neier wrote on his blog, “air­port se­cu­rity doesn’t have to be 100% ef­fec­tive in de­tect­ing guns and bombs,” it just needs to be good enough to de­ter ter­ror­ists who be­lieve there’s a de­cent chance of get­ting caught. But a “95% fail­ure rate is bad, be­cause you can build a plot around sneak­ing some­thing past the TSA.”

Care­less pub­li­ca­tion of harm­ful leaks is on the rise and will have con­se­quences.

Two months ago, the on­line mag­a­zine the In­ter­cept, whose main pur­pose ap­pears to be ex­pos­ing West­ern se­crets, pub­lished a check­list of ex­actly what TSA screen­ers are look­ing for to find ter­ror­ists try­ing to board air­lin­ers. Call­ing that story reck­less is kind, since what ben­e­fit is there to let­ting the world know this sort of in­for­ma­tion?

Ter­ror­ists have learned from the Snow­den leaks how West­ern in­tel­li­gence is try­ing to find them — that im­pact has al­ready been felt by counter-ter­ror­ist ser­vices. Now they also know what the TSA is look­ing for, and that it’s in­ef­fec­tive.

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