TSA a disgrace to the security profession
The great lexicographer Samuel Johnson, on the evening of April 7, 1775, told us, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” We’ve seen quite a bit of this behaviour since the 9/11 incidents as right wing politicians try to finesse the lifting of our liberties in the interests of being a “good citizen” and “fighting terrorism.” Perhaps today Johnson would have modernized his words by saying, “The Transportation Safety Administration is now the last refuge of the scoundrel,” as they continue to abuse public in the false name of “security” and prove themselves a disgrace to the security profession.
In case you’ve missed the latest developments in the United States, many passengers over the past few weeks have found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between two intrusive and dehumanization alternatives: Submitting to a virtual strip search courtesy of a “body scanning” machine, or being subjected to an “enhanced pat-down” of their entire body including breasts and genitals.
As a security professional one thing that makes my blood boil is when “security” is used as an excuse. I cringe when I hear the phrase, “for your comfort and security…” which is usually followed by words that have little – if anything – to do with comfort or security. But in more than fifteen years as a security professional I have seldom witnessed anything as disgraceful as TSA officials using “security” as an excuse to abuse passengers.
Preventing the introduction of weapons, explosives, and other dangerous items onto passenger aircraft has been a security concern since the first recorded aircraft hijacking in 1931. In 2001 the game changed when multiple aircraft were hijacked and flown into ground targets as improvised missiles. Additional threats, including the introduction of small amounts of explosives onto passenger aircraft, have further complicated the threat landscape.
There is no doubt that the nature of the threat against passenger aircraft has changed dramatically in the past decade. The era of hijackings in which crew and passengers passively cooperated with hijackers – and were usually released – has been replaced with a set of new scenarios in which immediate action by passengers and crew against anyone threatening the aircraft appears justifiable and the best chance for survival.
There is also no doubt that all aspects of aviation security, including passenger screening, need to be regularly reviewed and appropriate changes made to manage risks. However, there is a world of difference between imposing realistic security controls and using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to impose draconian, unnecessarily invasive, and abusive processes in the name of “security”.
It is true that there is a terrorist threat against aircraft, and passengers are one of many vectors that could facilitate the threat. But in passenger screening, as in most areas of security, the law of diminishing returns applies. X-ray machines for carry-on luggage, explosive residue detection equipment, metal detectors, and skilled security professionals are capable of detecting the vast majority of weapons and explosives. Perfection is simply not possible. Adding strip-search machines and intrusive “pat downs” adds little – if any – additional security, and the marginal gain is grossly outweighed by the negative impact of the security measure on the very people it is designed to protect. It is a dramatic example of an exceptionally poor security management decision.
Let’s also not forget that the threat of terrorism is not limited to aircraft. Around the globe busses, trains, schools, public buildings, restaurants, bars, hotels, and marketplaces have all be targeted by terrorists and other criminals. As security professionals we have an obligation to set aside knee-jerk, “increased security at all cost” reactions and seek out security controls that are both effective and acceptable to the population they impact. Nobody would consent to body scans or intrusive personal searches to get into a taxi, bus, shopping plaza or nightclub. So why should we tolerate it at an airport?
I’m sure the TSA will argue that their employees are not committing sexual assault (or whatever the crime is called in the airport’s jurisdiction) because they have “consent”. But do they really? What choice does a person whose job requires them to travel have? Much of the United States has “at will” employment – employers need no reason to dismiss an employee. Let the TSA view their naked image, let the TSA grope them, or risk loosing their job. Not much of a choice. Parents also have a difficult choice to make. Do they subject their children to TSA “searches” that would land anyone else in jail, or do they cancel the trip to Disney this winter?
The TSA’s new ‘scope or grope’ policy does not meaningfully improve security. No technology can compensate for poorly paid, poorly trained, and increasingly disenchanted front-line security staff. The fact that the TSA even considered this ineffective and unethical nonsense highlights the fecklessness of TSA leadership and the spineless politicians that support them.
Law abiding citizens and airport security staff should see each other as partners in security – both cooperating to ensure the security of their flights. But that won’t work until the TSA stops abusing those it is supposed to protect. It’s time for TSA chief John Pistole to pack his bags and for the American Government to put a real security professional in charge.