Happy Holidays, TSA

What’s improved in aviation security since 9/11? What are the most ineffective/expensive/ irritating things TSA still does? What’s just weird and scary? And what can you do this holiday season to make the screening experience better? These are the questions I posed to several leading aviation security experts over the past two weeks. My findings, and a few rants about snow globes and low-riding pants, are here.   http://atfp.co/12qotQ6

Author: Amy Zegart

Amy Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. She is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and a professor of political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (by courtesy). Her research examines national security agencies, American foreign policy, and anything scary. Academic publications include two award-winning books: Spying Blind, which examines intelligence adaptation failures before 9/11, and Flawed by Design, which chronicles the evolution of America’s national security architecture. She is currently working on a book about intelligence in the post-9/11 world. Zegart writes an intelligence column at foreignpolicy.com, and her pieces have also appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times. Previously, she taught at UCLA and worked at McKinsey & Company. A former Fulbright Scholar, she received an A.B. in East Asian Studies from Harvard and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. A native Kentuckian, she loves to watch good college football and bad reality TV.

5 thoughts on “Happy Holidays, TSA”

  1. Well, here’s a few points.

    First, random checks are highly effective, for multiple reasons. (1) they’re cheaper. (2) they’re unpredictable (I’m not sure about this “planned” thing you mention; the point of randomness is that it is NOT planned) and therefore can’t be countervailed, and (3) (for similar reasons to #2) they avoid systemic bias and hence catch things that more “planned” programs do not. Similar schemes are used in public transit systems worldwide, to evident effect.

    Second, the “security theater” dimension is very important. Our political system — unwisely IMO — sold this to the public as a way to increase safety, so reducing it now will reduce the public perception of safety. That much or all of this safety benefit may be illusory is beside the point. The people are happier; therefore, it is good.

    Third, there was a huge grifting opportunity. Those “full-body scanners” you mention were very expensive, and a few companies made major bank off them. That they are now (per TSA’s own plan) being redeployed to smaller airports, because the delay they impose is not worth their (minuscule) security gain at larger ones, is empirical proof that they were a waste of money. Nevertheless, this is the result of (mostly Republican) paranoia and crony capitalism. (The Democrats got their bit via the ludicrous overstaffing of the politically-appointed TSA.)

    That the average traveler is (1) inconvenienced, (2) paying for useless theater via their taxes, and (3) not really much safer — except perhaps for the randomness part — is what happens when a body politic submits to fear. I have no expectation that things will be at all different the next time this sort of situation rolls around.

    1. Where is the evidence that the TSA sexual assaults cum patdowns are effective? They have never ever stopped even one single terrorist by arbitrarily groping people. And these assaults are arbitrary not random. Random implies method, whereas the TSA gropes people because they feel like it. Some have even admitted to doing punative groping just because they could.

  2. Your link goes to the second page of your piece. In this case, it was kind of confusing. This is something people do all the time and I find kind of annoying.

  3. As a non-expert, let me ask a simple-minded question: now that Osama bin Laden is dead, why are we letting him run all our airports?

  4. Not to be unnecessarily provocative, but a better question would be “What has TSA done that’s actually effective?” It would be a shorter list. Body scanners? Congress, security experts, and just about everyone else (including terrorists) know that they don’t find any contraband (like an explosive) in a body cavity, applied in a thin layer to the bottom of the foot, or between folds of skin for an obese person. Limiting liquids to 3.4 oz? Sure, as long as those pesky terrorists can’t find a half dozen accomplices to also bring their own sample so as to make a total of a quart of liquid explosive. Screeners at train stations? It’s a train, fer chrissake, they could just plan at explosive on the track. What TSA HAS done is drive travelers to the roads (which are far less safe), slow down air travel, and drain funds that could be used more effectively to identify plots before the bad guys get to the airport. But other than that, they’re doing a heckuva job.

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