Thursday, October 18, 2007

Screeners missed fake bombs, but can we learn from history?

According to this story in USA Today, security screeners failed to find fake bombs hidden on undercover agents.

"Security screeners at two of the nation's busiest airports failed to find fake bombs hidden on undercover agents posing as passengers in more than 60% of tests last year, according to a classified report obtained by USA TODAY.

Screeners at Los Angeles International Airport missed about 75% of simulated explosives and bomb parts that Transportation Security Administration testers hid under their clothes or in carry-on bags at checkpoints, the TSA report shows.

At Chicago O'Hare International Airport, screeners missed about 60% of hidden bomb materials that were packed in everyday carry-ons — including toiletry kits, briefcases and CD players. San Francisco International Airport screeners, who work for a private company instead of the TSA, missed about 20% of the bombs, the report shows. The TSA ran about 70 tests at Los Angeles, 75 at Chicago and 145 at San Francisco."

Interestingly, the private company only missed about 20% of the bombs while TSA agents at LAX missed about 75%.

Perhaps they're just more focused on whether or not we take off our shoes and ensuring that all those selected for 'individual screening' match the general demographics of the nation.

And then there was this statement further down in the article:

"The failure rates at Los Angeles and Chicago are "somewhat misleading" because they don't reflect screeners' improved ability to find bombs,..."

Super - so their failure rate is actually an improvement.

More and more, I think the Isrealis have the right idea about such security issues in that they screen for behavior rather than objects.

And then I came across this interesting column by Becky Akers from the Foundation for Economic Education in which she compares the bandits who robbed trains to the terrorists of today and the need to keep both forms of transportation safe for passengers.

"The railroads, like the airlines, might have turned to government for protection; they certainly never hesitated to demand the State’s help in acquiring land, financing their operations, or enforcing a cartel to squash competitors. But aside from the rewards some states posted and the lawmen they paid for capturing criminals “dead or alive,” the railroads assumed most of this responsibility themselves. That left them free to protect their passengers and equipment in ways prohibited to the airlines.

First, rather than relying on bureaucrats and hacks for security, the railroads hired the best companies available. Their agents concentrated on pursuing—literally—the culprits. They would have laughed at the idea that they should harass, search, and delay passengers at depots while waiting for the outlaws to come to them."

And she goes on to explain that, like so many 'solutions' today, it's easier to establish new bureaucracies with the appearance of solving the problem rather than take the more difficult steps to actually solve the problem.

"It’s far safer and easier to search law-abiding passengers than to track criminals, but it’s also useless: during the TSA’s four-and-a-half years of existence, not one of its employees has caught a terrorist. In lieu of bad guys, then, the TSA protects us from each other, from flyers who break the agency’s whimsical and ever-changing rules, from men named David Nelson (this name has unexplicably earned passengers close scrutiny) and Cat Stevens (aka Yusuf Islam), and from women wielding lipsticks. The list of mistakes and misdeeds that turn travelers into terrorists will continue to expand as the TSA tries to justify its existence and its $5 billion yearly budget—and as the government reaps revenue from the fines “terrorists” pay.

The railroads also confronted a real enemy. They neither lied nor exaggerated the risks because that would cost them customers. Contrast that with the bureaucrats at the TSA and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. They depend on taxpayers’ fears of ubiquitous, magically lethal terrorists for their jobs and cushy offices. (The TSA’s headquarters boasts $500,000 worth of silk plants and artwork, a 4,200-square-foot fitness center, and seven kitchens.) So does their army of 45,000 airport screeners. Indeed, the government’s incentives are not only perverse but directly opposite the railroads’: the bigger the threat, the more government passengers “need” and the more eagerly they cede their freedom."

Akers doesn't believe that privatizing security is the cure-all. But she does suggest, and I agree, that "weaning the airlines from taxpayer-funded, politically driven “security”—and from the federal straitjacket accompanying it—would result in the same no-nonsense approach the railroads took. Jets worth billions guarantee the airlines’ scrupulous attention to providing their own foolproof protection. And repeat business comes only from living customers who reach their destinations in one piece."

I fear, however, that we've come too far down the road of dependence upon government for everything to every believe that a solution not government initiated would be a viable alternative.


Tim Higgins said...

Unfortunately Maggie, you are correct in your assesment of the system. The good news here is the the failures of the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA have been brought to light. The bad news is that they will probably be used to wring additional funding and perpetrate more intrusive security procedures on tax-payers and the flying public.

We have created another typical government bureaucratic monstronsity here, and I would doubt that there is any way that we can step back from the precipice, no matter how intelligent the idea of privatizing airport security might seem. Like most bureaucracies, following their own rules and increasing the size of their budgets becomes far more important than completing the task assigned to them.

We have also saddled the security of our airports with the politically correct mentality that permeates our society today. This means that the only way that we can keep from offending anyone is to treat everyone as a potential terrorist.

As you rightly point out, "we've come too far down the road of dependence upon government for everything to every believe that a solution not government initiated would be a viable alternative". Identifying the problems and potential solutions is probaly going to be a lot simpler than getting anything constructive implemented.

Robin said...

Well... at least window dressing helps to make some people feel safer.

Tim Higgins said...

You know it now occurs to me that this is an excellent test case for keeping things in the private sector vs. turning them over to government control. Maybe we could learn by example for such things as oh, say health care.

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