Can you think of anything in your life that isn’t very good at its job, has lots of irritating quirks, and costs you a lot of money and hassle? Normally, wouldn’t you replace it with something cheaper or better, or stop buying it, if you could?
Last week, it was reported that 95% of “red team” members –good guys who get paid to try and sneak weapons past the TSA – were successful in their tests. The TSA – to its credit – has been doing self-tests since its inception, but in no published report in over 10 years did any TSA site intercept even half of the weapons that testers attempted to sneak through TSA checkpoints.
So, if you think the TSA is supposed to keep people from smuggling weapons onto US commercial flights, sadly, we’d have to conclude that they’re not very good at their job.
The TSA actually has a blog where they talk about the things they detected and stopped each week. They give the number of intercepted weapons. The quantity and variety of stuff that normal folks apparently try to fly with is pretty interesting.
An obvious question is: if red-team testers are successful 95% of the time, what is the real frequency of people getting on planes with weapons that the TSA missed?
For a recent week, the TSA stopped 49 firearms. If they miss 95% of attempts to board an aircraft with a gun, that means 950 undetected firearms were flying above us last week.
However, actually estimating how many firearms are floating above our heads depends on the cleverness of the actual population of folks trying to smuggle guns onto planes. The estimate of 950 supposes that all of the guns the TSA actually recovered were from competent smugglers. If the actual smugglers aren’t as bright as the red team testers, the actual smugglers would get caught at a rate higher than 5%. That would imply that fewer than 950 smuggled guns are flying above us in a given week.
On the other hand, some Americans have managed to sneak weapons on airplanes accidentally. Far from being competent penetration testers, these are people who may have simply forgot to dress or pack differently on the day they were flying, or who forget to check a bag instead of carrying it on. It’s hard to quantify the anecdotal evidence of this happening, but it appears that non-experts are able to sneak weapons onto airplanes in the US – without even trying.
So we don’t know precisely how many, but we know that despite the TSA, lots of handguns and other weapons are making it onto airplanes.
Yet, since September 11, there has been a tremendous lack of domestic air piracy in the US. The weapons are up there, and nobody is using them to hijack planes. Why not?
We’ve been led to believe that the threat of terrorist attacks against domestic US flights is incredibly high. We’ve learned that the TSA isn’t especially good at intercepting people determined to get weapons onto planes. So how can we explain the lack of hijackings?
It might be that intelligent terrorists just aren’t as interested in domestic hijackings as we’ve been led to believe.
The history of airport security in the United States is less than 50 years old. Prior to the 1970s, there were no metal detectors or security checkpoints in US airports. After a series of hijackings, including the famous DB Cooper incident, federal law was changed to require all airlines to implement security screening procedures for US domestic flights.
After implementing those procedures, hijackings in the US went down considerably, and up until September 11, domestic air travel in the United States was widely thought to be pretty safe.
What is interesting about the post-9/11 airport security procedures is that they are largely fighting a threat that no longer exists.
The 9/11 attackers used box cutters and other pointed or sharp items as weapons to threaten passengers and flight crew. They gained control of 4 aircraft and we know the rest.
Because of 9/11, the TSA doesn’t let people travel with box cutters or several other things that can be obviously used as weapons.
But the fallacy of this approach is that normal Americans are tremendously inconvenienced by the ever-changing airport security gyrations, and, as we’ve seen above, it’s easy enough to smuggle a real actual gun onto an airplane, so why hassle people over things like knitting needles?
What’s especially frustrating about this is that keeping box cutters off of planes was already unnecessary by the time the passengers of Flight 93 heroically stopped the 4th plane from reaching its destination. By the early morning of September 11th, after the passengers had brought down Flight 93, September 11 style attacks against airliners were already obsolete. Americans had been shaken into the realization that we shouldn’t cooperate with hijackers, we live in a dangerous world, and it’s up to us to take care of ourselves. Furthermore, on a typical flight, there are more good guys than bad guys, and so the good guys ought to simply overpower the attackers.
The American people figured out how to deal with the September 11th threat a few hours after first learning about it.
The American taxpayer, on the other hand, has been paying billions of dollars per year ever since to try and stop a threat that was made irrelevant fourteen years ago.
Security experts agree that some kind of screening process is a good idea at airports. Since we cannot reliably detect the really smart attackers who are trying really hard, what we should focus on is detecting the people who are easy to catch, either because they aren’t very clever or because their plans aren’t very good. This should be pretty affordable to do so long as the federal government doesn’t end up running it. The lack of successful attacks despite the ease at which folks can sneak weapons onto planes tells us that there simply aren’t that many highly intelligent people attempting attacks right now. So spending our security efforts (and dollars) trying to stop the less clever ones is a good approach.
For point of comparison, Israel is the world leader in air travel security. Since 1968, no El-Al airliner has been hijacked, and no aircraft departing Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport has ever been hijacked. Yet Israel is one of the chief targets of terrorism.
The current security philosophy of the TSA is to try and look for bad items – like guns or box cutters. The security philosophy of Israel is to try and look for bad people, and to provide multiple layers of defense. Each individual wishing to board a flight in Israel starts by answering 8-10 behavioral questions – what they were doing in Israel, etc. Based on the interview, additional scrutiny may be applied to the passenger. Reportedly, young Arab men receive more thorough questioning and subsequent scrutiny than do other individuals. Armed Sky Marshals are on every El-Al flight. Most El-Al pilots are ex-military. El-Al aircraft have stiffened floors between the cargo bay and passenger level, and a double-door interlock system to get into the cockpit.
Unlike what the TSA does, what Israel does is actually pretty effective – because it has to be.
For a variety of legal, social, and cost reasons, Israeli style screening will never be implemented in the US the way it is implemented in Israel.
Instead, what we have is an organization that politically cannot do the things that are shown to work well (profiling), has a miserable record in stopping determined threats, is tremendously expensive, and makes air travel a big hassle for most Americans.
And, as we learned this week, the TSA may actually be making us less safe.
It turns out that the federal bureaucracy is so overwrought that the TSA didn’t have sufficient authority to complete terror background checks on its own employees. The TSA was recently found to actually be employing 73 different people with ties to terrorism.
What’s the point of building a security apparatus to keep out terrorists if you’re going to staff it with possible terrorists?
Americans spend $6 billion a year on the TSA, so that we can put possible terrorists in charge of keeping terrorists off our airplanes.
The basic problem, like so much of the federal government, is the insistence on a one-size-fits-all policy, building a large organization to implement it, and then feigning shock when it is cumbersome and not universally liked.
We should talk about airline security like adults – from the perspective of threats, risks, and costs. Furthermore, we should realize that different people, cities, and situations have different ideas about threats, risks, and costs. The airports serving New York City face more threats than does Fargo’s Hector Airport. It makes sense for security to be more thorough for flights going through New York than it does for flights between Fargo and Omaha.
There are some people who will read what I’ve written and recoil in horror at the idea of reducing a security agency. I would like those people to have good security options available to them – as long as they don’t expect me to put up with it or pay for it. I’m sure there is good money to be made filling the market niche for people who want much more security screening than what federal law requires. I think there is also good money to be made serving people like myself – who usually want less security and more convenience.
Finally, since it is now impossible to fly anonymously in the US, and they ask every flyer for government ID anyhow, they may as well start accepting state issued concealed carry permits as a valid form of ID. (Trivia: Concealed Weapons Permits are specifically disallowed as valid ID for boarding an aircraft).
Once they get over that hurdle, they may as well allow concealed carry on airplanes if your paperwork checks out.
I’d expect some airports and some airlines to have different policies about this – and that’s fine with me. Again, let the flyers decide where they want to send their business.
What we learned on 9/11 is that the best way for Americans to protect themselves is to act bravely in the face of evil. It’s up to all of us.
What we’ve learned since then is that it’s time to retire the TSA. We want better safety, lower invasiveness, and all at a lower price. Even better, I think we want choices.
I think we can do a lot better than paying $6 billion a year to pay possible terrorists to not find 95% of the guns people try sneaking on board.