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March 25, 2009

TSA: Tedious, Slow, and Absurd?


Charles Peña

The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) recently announced that it was re-instituting random screening of passengers at gates. Of course, the reality is that TSA has been conducting additional screening at gates since July 2008 per the TSA's own Web site:

"If you are flying in or out of a U.S. airport this summer you may notice Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) conducting random additional screening at airline gates.

"The screening – part of TSA's Aviation Direct Access Screening Program (ADASP) – can include checking passenger identification and boarding passes, conducting physical searches of carry-on luggage, using handheld explosive detection units, and screening of individuals. These checks are not announced in advance and can occur at any gate, at any time."

According to TSA spokesperson Lara Uselding:

  • The move to restore random gate checks developed "as the agency evolved," not because of a specific threat.
  • "Gate screening is particularly effective at addressing insider threats and serves as a random and unpredictable security layer that, like all TSA's security measures, was developed using a risk-based approach."
  • "Everything we do here at TSA is for a reason, it's not made to make travelers' lives a hassle."

One can only wonder what possessed TSA (and exactly whom at TSA) to decide that additional random screening at airport gates was a necessary – and effective – security measure. Although TSA claims that everything it does is for a reason, in the next breath the agency admits that the decision wasn't because of a specific threat. Put another way: there's no real or compelling reason for doing it. So while TSA asserts the purpose is not to hassle travelers, their own logic smacks of "because we can." And because they can, protesting if you are one of the unfortunate random selections means TSA can choose to make your traveling experience less than pleasant – including making you miss your flight.

TSA wants us to believe that the need for additional random screening is the result of risk-based analysis. Risk is a complex function based on several variables: threat, vulnerability, consequence (cost and effect), and likelihood. By its own admission, there is no specific threat that warrants random gate screening. In strict mathematical terms, if the threat is zero, then risk – by definition – would also be zero. Certainly there are potential consequences; 9/11 was a tragic demonstration of that. And presumably there is some likelihood, though it is probably impossible to accurately assess or calculate. So that leaves vulnerability as a deciding factor.

If vulnerability is the reason, then TSA has a lot of explaining to do. Travelers routinely practically disrobe going through airport security to get to their gate: taking off their shoes, removing coats and sweaters, making sure they aren't wearing anything metal such as belts and jewelry, and separating laptops and liquids and gels (limited to no more than 3-ounce containers in a single quart-sized bag) from their carry-on luggage. Their bags then pass through X-ray inspection. Passengers walk through metal detectors. And they can be subjected to additional searches of their persons and effects. So despite this relatively intrusive security check, is TSA saying that airplanes are still vulnerable to hijacking? That possibility seems difficult to fathom when current security screening is combined with secure cockpit doors and the possibility of armed pilots.

If TSA is worried about explosives or improvised explosive devices (IEDs), then waiting until someone gets to a gate is probably too late. Although they might be prevented from boarding an airplane and blowing it up in flight, they could still blow themselves up – and everyone nearby – at the gate or boarding lounge. For that matter, they could do the same thing while going through security. So is TSA telling us that Dane Cook's Saturday Night Live skit is more fact than fiction?

At least one aviation security expert, Richard Roth, thinks that the reasons might be fears about airport workers, who are not routinely screened and could sneak weapons into secure areas of airports to give to passengers. If that's the case, then airports need to do a more thorough job of screening workers rather than subjecting passengers to more needless security.

President Barack Obama campaigned on the need for change. But going back to random passenger screening at airport gates is not the kind of change we need.

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  • Photo - George Cole

    Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
    Policy Institute
    , an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. He has also appeared on CNN, Fox News, NBC Nightly News, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and The McLaughlin Group, as well as international television and radio. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda, and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.


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