FBI Counter-Terror Agent: TSA’s Incompetence “Frightens Me”

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Yes, the TSA has spent about $65 billion of our tax money over the last decade, but look on the bright side — we get absolutely nothing for it.

Well, we do get groped. I guess that's something.

In a post last month (cited last week by Boing Boing), Steve Moore explains the utter pointlessness and incompetence of the TSA. What does he know about it? Well, he was an FBI agent for many years, ran the L.A. branch of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, investigated terror plots overseas, and is trained in airline security procedures up to and including how to safely shoot somebody on an airplane. (Well, safely for everybody else.) He's been paying a lot of attention to the TSA over the years and his conclusion is that the "TSA is one of the worst-run, ineffective and most unnecessarily intrusive agencies in the United States government…. Frankly, the professional experience I have had with TSA has frightened me."

While I don't have the same level of training, I am a member of several frequent-flyer plans, and I have reached the same conclusion.

As Moore points out, the whole TSA model is flawed to begin with:

It requires an impossibility for it to succeed. For the TSA model to work, every single possible means of causing danger to an aircraft or its passengers must be eliminated. This is an impossibility. While passengers are being frisked and digitally strip-searched a few dozen yards away, cooks and dishwashers at the local concourse Chili's are using and cleaning butcher knives.

While bomb-sniffing dogs are run past luggage, the beach at the departure end of LAX is largely unpatrolled, and anybody with a shoulder launched missile (you know, the ones they regularly shoot down U.S. helicopters with in Afghanistan) could take out any plane of their choice. I am reticent to discuss anything further that would give anybody ideas. However, these two have had wide dissemination in the media but are by NO means the biggest threats.

Before any TSA people invade Chili's or go running down to the beach, the point is that a terrorist doesn't need to, and wouldn't, re-enact 9/11 and probably wouldn't even bother with airplanes at all. Giving up important rights so the TSA can try to block a strategy that stopped working on 9/11 makes no sense. Not that it could successfully block that strategy anyway, as shown yet again this week by a blogger who demonstrated just how easy it is to get metal objects past the naked scanners.

Moore also notes – and I don't know how I missed this — that a Congressional report released last November concluded that the TSA has "failed" at everything except turning itself into a "bloated bureaucracy." According to that report, it now has over 65,000 employees, more than Labor, Energy, Education, HUD, and State combined. What are all those people doing? Nothin' much:
  • "[M]ore than 25,000 security breaches have occurred at U.S. airports in the last decade, despite a massive TSA presence."
  • The agency "wasted $39 million" to buy explosives-detection machines that "could not consistently detect explosives in an operational environment…. TSA recently paid the Department of Defense $600 per unit to dispose of the useless machines."
  • It has spent hundreds of millions on those body scanners that don't work.
  • Tests (including at least one by the TSA) have repeatedly shown that private screeners get better results than the TSA. The TSA responded by saying it wouldn't approve any more private screeners.
  • The number of TSA personnel focusing on overseas threats is "limited," which is a problem because, it turns out, most terrorists come from overseas! Who knew?!

Here's my favorite. The TSA is spending about $2 billion on its "Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques" program, or SPOT (get it?). This involves training certain screeners to look for "behavioral indicators" — like acting stressed out — that terrorists supposedly exhibit. This has actually been implemented at a number of airports since 2004, and here are the results:

[O]ut of two billion airline passengers who passed through SPOT airports …, only 1,100 were arrested, and none were arrested on terrorism charges. Even more disconcerting is the fact that GAO reported that since the SPOT program's inception, at least 17 known terrorists have flown on 24 different occasions at eight SPOT airports.

Emphasis added to show points at which I kind of freaked out. Not only have "17 known terrorists" been able to fly, sometimes repeatedly (and those are the known terrorists we know about), the Times Square car bomber was able to get on a plane after his (attempted) attack despite the fact that he traveled though one of these SPOT airports and paid cash for his ticket and had been put on the "no-fly" list.

To be fair, though, while actual terrorists are apparently able to get through TSA security, the TSA has been doing a pretty good job of hassling nursing mothers.

Both Moore and the Congressional report conclude that serious reform is needed, and I agree with that, as long as the reform is to get rid of the TSA, period. Ten years is enough for these kinds of experiments.