Transportation Stupidity Administration — Part IV

Following September 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created to strengthen the security of the nation’s transportation systems and ensure the freedom of movement for people and commerce.  []

My last post pointed out how stupid are the rules propagated by the massive “Transportation Security Administration.”  The purpose and practical operations of the TSA bear further scrutiny.  After all, the institution directly consumes around $10BB of government funds each year.  Its rules and activities impose even greater indirect costs in terms of delays and obstructions throughout the global transportation infrastructure.  The TSA also imposes enormous political and social costs, since in its zeal to pursue its mission it consistently infringes what were once considered fundamental human rights against unreasonable search and harassment by government agents.

Given the public image of the TSA, its official mission and vision are downright Orwellian:

Mission: Protect the Nation’s transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce.
Vision: Provide the most effective transportation security in the most efficient way as a high performing counterterrorism organization.

I assume the agency’s political reasoning goes something like this: “People who are afraid of terrorism targeting transportation systems will hesitate to use those systems to travel.  Therefore, our job is to minimize our citizens’ fear, so that their fear will not prevent them from using the Nation’s transportation systems.”  And this would explain a lot of stupid stuff the TSA does in practice.  “Security theater,” and all that jazz that supposedly makes people feel safer.

Never mind the fact that a lot of people object to what the TSA does, often to the degree that they avoid commercial air travel explicitly because of the TSA’s antics.*

As I will explain in a moment, the TSA can’t prevent or even significantly reduce acts of terrorism.  If the TSA were to honestly pursue its vision it would simply close up shop because, given the current threat environment, “the most effective transportation security” would be to leave us alone — let the travelling public and for-profit transportation companies take care of themselves.

Let us think, for a moment, like a terrorist.  Your goal is to generate fear and attention through random acts of mass mayhem.  You may be willing to die in the act, and you may be able to conspire with like-minded individuals.  Would you target commercial aircraft?  9/11 demonstrated that a heavy airplane can be turned into the most powerful conventional weapon you could hope for … if you’re able to take control of it.  9/11 also made that nearly impossible to repeat: Today you not only have to breach a fortified cockpit and overcome armed pilots, but also hold off a cabin full of people who realize they’re probably dead if you succeed.  If you’re able to pilot a heavy jet wouldn’t you rather face down the two or three guys in charge of one of those cargo planes at the far end of the airport?

So, with or without the TSA, you can’t turn a commercial aircraft into a guided weapon.  But what about destroying it?  If you can get a modest explosive on board and detonate it in flight you can kill a few hundred passengers and cost an insurer a few hundred million dollars.  You might cause further damage on the ground.  Sure enough, airplanes have been consistent targets for terrorist bomb plots over the years.  The TSA does not appear to have put a dent in either the number of attempts or in their rate of success.  After all, even the TSA admits of bombs, “These items are extremely hard to spot.”  So what does the TSA do?  More reactionary security theater: A bomber conceals explosives in his shoes, and now we all have to remove our shoes.  A plot is uncovered using liquid explosives, and now we can’t carry liquids through security barriers.  A bomber conceals explosives in his underwear, and now we all have to have our underwear groped.  None of these charades change the fact that the TSA passenger screening process cannot detect explosives.

In fact, even if you were strip-searched and had agents X-ray and paw every item in your carry-on luggage you could, with 100% certainty, make it through security with enough solid secondary explosive to buckle a heavy jet’s wing spar from a cabin seat.  The thing that seems to keep this from happening more often is the detonator, which is the trickiest part of a bomb.  But the TSA has no better chance at identifying a concealed detonator.  Apparently the only thing that keeps plane bombings from happening more frequently is that nobody who is good at building detonators is willing to kill himself, and somebody is preventing good detonators from getting into the hands of suicidal terrorists with airplane tickets.  TSA passenger security lines are not stopping airplanes from being bombed.

Still thinking like a terrorist: What if the TSA were effective?  What if the thing keeping your functional suicide bomb from instilling fear into the heart of the flying public was that long security line?  I wonder what would happen if you instead detonated your bomb right there in the middle of an airport on a peak travel day.  You could potentially kill as many people as you’d get on the plane.  You’d certainly wound many more.  And unlike on the plane, you might be able to slip away right after your bomb makes it to the center of mass and you trigger a detonator with a slight delay.  You might get away, or you might get caught, but either way you’d be alive and have all the publicity you could want.  I have a theory on why no terrorist has tried this: Because the TSA is already terrorizing the flying public.  What more could a terrorist hope for?  The diversion of more resources to a bureaucracy determined to harass and humiliate the flying public to the utmost tolerable extent?  Of course not.  The TSA is a grotesque, living reminder that terrorism works.

We don’t need the TSA.  If you’re a terrorist and you can build a bomb you’ll blow up an important building, bridge, or tunnel.  Otherwise you’ll rent a heavy truck and plow it into a large crowd at a public event.  Or you’ll carry a bag of weapons into a “gun-free zone” and kill as many law-abiding citizens as you can (starting with any government officers who might be armed).

* A June 2008 study by the U.S. Travel Association revealed a deep frustration among air travelers that caused them to avoid an estimated 41 million trips over the past 12 months at a cost of more than $26 billion to the U.S. economy.  Air travelers expressed little optimism for positive change, with nearly 50 percent saying that the air travel system is not likely to improve in the near future. The effect of avoided trips cost airlines more than $9 billion in revenue; hotels nearly $6 billion and restaurants more than $3 billion.  Federal, state and local governments lost more than $4 billion in tax revenue because of reduced spending by travelers. (Source: Air Travel Survey, 2008)

Transportation Stupidity Administration — Part III

Apparently bureaucratic stupidity is contagious: A bunch of industry leaders are upset and scared that the TSA is letting commercial airline passengers carry some small knives and sticks onto planes.

When I first heard about this policy I just tweeted,

Nitpicking: TSA Bureaucrats doing what bureaucrats do best: tsa_permitted_items_update.pdf … #TSA #DontYouFeelSaferNow?”

If there was an objection, I thought, it would be to the fact that the TSA is just compounding rules for no good reason. After all, “Abandon your rights and your property if you want to board a commercial plane” was easy to understand. Then they started enumerating policies and procedures — no liquids, 3-ounce containers, shoes off, laptops out — and it just got more confusing and annoying but we didn’t really get our rights back and we didn’t get any safer.

I never dreamed people would use safety as a premise for objecting to the new TSA allowed list. For reference, this is the pocket knife I routinely flew with throughout the 1990’s, right up until September 11, 2001:


In those halcyon days the rules on carrying knives on planes were similar to those in many metro areas: no restrictions so long as the blade was shorter than 4 inches and it wasn’t spring-loaded. I would drop the knife in the little bin to pass around the metal detector and clip it back in my pocket on the other side. I only remember one time a security screener took the time to open it and measure the blade against the width of her palm to ensure it wasn’t too long.

I’ve made this point before but apparently it hasn’t sunk in: Knives in the hands of airplane passengers were never an extraordinary threat, but for two hours on the morning of 9/11 during which they were incidental in a ruse to turn heavy aircraft into weapons of mass destruction. As soon as the ruse was discovered it could never be repeated. Any future attempt to use a heavy commercial plane as a weapon will have to overcome overwhelming obstacles: A fortified cockpit door, armed pilots trained to resist cockpit incursions, and a flying public that now realizes any violent actors could be suicidal fanatics who should be stopped at any cost, not placated.