Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Airport Screening

(fm the BC thread "White Powder")

First my experience with TSA is not current and my opinion is not official but it is probably accurate.

The attempt to destroy the Detroit flight was not a TSA failure because he did not board in the United States where TSA is. There is an ongoing story being built that screening is ineffective because of PC. That is used as a shorthand or really a cover for a call to either "profile" meaning screen muslims to the exclusion of others or to simply exclude moslems. Such policies are inadvisable as called for and the reference to PC is misapplied in that security is not simply hurt by a squeamishness about inspecting moslems. Are there reasons to inspect some moslems more carefully? Yes and the manual that was improperly released contained directions to screen persons carrying some passports more intensively.

For reasons that have already been gone over persons from other ethnic or religious backgrounds cannot be exempted from screening. It would be impossible to tell anyway who the threat is that way. Would you go up to everyone in the airport asking "Are you a moslem?" like the Orthodox who come up to you in NY and ask if you are a jew. Aside from the fact that al-Qaeda may instruct their operatives to lie at that point, the scoundrels, there are other obvious limitations to that approach. Most moslems are not arabs. Will you then focus on South and East Asians and Filipinos to ensure that they are not secret Indonesians? Will you be able to tell the real Sikh from the jihadi pretending to be a Sikh? How do you react to the fact that most arabs in America are not moslems but christians of Lebanese descent? Will you then exempt Christian arabs from screening, if they prove they are not moslem by eating bacon at the checkpoint? Then again many of the early pioneers of Palestinian terrorism were of a christian background. The members of the minority often are found in the revolutionary vanguard. So maybe we should focus more on college educated christians. The point is that the threat is not limited to one easily identifiable ethnic group, this guy was a black african not an arab, and is a political and religious ideology. They will use an innocent as a mule. They will recruit members of other groups. Adam Yahiye Gadahn was born Adam Pearlman. Are we going to focus on every crazy jew in California? It is a tempting idea but it may not be the most efficient way to proceed.

Of course I over state the problem and we do need to both provide a basic level of screening to everyone and then screen identified threats more intensively. The point is that just saying more moslems and fewer grandmothers is not the best way to improve security. There are two problems that could be called PC related that effect security.

One is the plethora of special sensitivities that are imposed on the screeners, with the moslems being a small part of the problem. Indeed the concern I have is that all the noise from other passengers needing accommodation in some way may mask the signal of the real threat. There are posters all over TSA work spaces pointing out the difference between moslems and sikhs and their head gear. Since we do not screen them any differently because of their religion why is this information imposed on the screening staff? It is to assuage the sensitivities of the sikhs. The Pennsylvania Dutch should demand that government spend hundreds of thousands of dollars distributing posters about their hats just so that they can get equal time. Mothers traveling with babies are allowed ice packs and packaged breast milk that other passengers would not be allowed. Mothers can show up with strollers that cannot fit through the x-ray machine. People who believe in homeopathy show up with little vials that can not be put through the x-ray and are inspected by having you look at them as the owner holds it up before you. If it was up to me I would then ETD inspect the owners hands to see if they had been handling explosives, since you can't wipe the sacred vial itself. Of course if it was peroxide they were smuggling to make an explosive that would demand a different test and it would not do to test the hands. Every TSA screener, they are called officers now God help us, has to see a movie in training on screening "People With Disabilities." The whole point of the hour is not reviewing specific techniques, although some are usefully gone over, but to communicate the self worth of the people at whose behest the film was made. In it a man in a wheelchair says "I am just like you I drive a nice car. I have a nice job and a family." This is being watched by entry level screeners who probably are making a lot less money than the man in the video. The HR Program Manager who introduces the video emits more signals of wealth and power than a duchess in a 1930s costume drama. It always surprised me after I showed the film that the new hires didn't go out and find some disabled person to knock down.

That leads to the second issue that limits the possibility of shifting to a system where we just pick out the bad guys first. Think of who is doing the screening and making these judgements. It has to as mechanical as possible in deciding who gets sent to secondary screening because the person saying please go to that line is a very entry level Federal employee. Who here wants to give them more discretion in the use of power? The original idea was to hire the TSA as "Screeners" to do just that screen and if anything alarms refer to a trained officer, LEO or Aviation Security Inspector or a Supervisor for further evaluation. That quickly was changed into Screeners resolving their own alarms and now they are called Officers, get shields and uniforms that look like LEO gear and they are getting a union. All of those are bad ideas.

BDOs can work but there are to few of them and they need to be carefully selected and inspected separate from the regular crony ridden TSA staff. Most of the Managers at TSA are retired police sergeants with neither the aptitude nor the interest in effectively managing a workforce like TSA has. The internal promotions may be no better given local politics, the presence of many former private security people from before TSA who stayed on, and a priority on reducing turnover and avoiding EEO complaints. The evaluation system is an expensive complicated fraud. The organization should be returned to its roots, Screeners demoted to Screeners and real Federal LEO Managers from CBP should be put in charge. The trained Aviation Security Inspector (ASI) force should be expanded to provided an unarmed authority in addition to the armed presence that CBP could provide. This would also provide a career path for Federal Air Marshals to move into. Right now their job is a dead end.

More thoughts.

(who has not flown commercially since 9-11)
I'd suggest trains could stage a revival but the government did for that industry what they will now do to health care. Trains are more of a security nightmare than planes are.

Kae Arby,
You do not want TSA doing random cavity searches. The reductio ad absurdum does not improve security. We need an airline industry. Checked baggage is not the problem. We want everything sent to checked baggage. The problem is what they are allowed to bring past the passenger screening checkpoint. People hate checking bags for several reasons;
1. Fear of theft by luggage handlers
2. Fear of delay at baggage claim
3. Work, child care or similar issues.

There are ways of dealing with these issues.
1. Put cameras in all baggage handling areas with displays in the public area. Just knowing this is being watched by strangers will cut theft by 90%. The TSA inspection areas, where baggage is opened could not be seen by the public but should be under management surveillance.

2. To bad, next question?

3. No carry on that weighs more than 2 kilos should be allowed, that would cover the executive laptop or book, except for childcare items needed on the flight. That means that the ice chest with the weeks supply of breast milk and the Rolls Royce of baby strollers should be sent to checked baggage before coming to the passenger checkpoint.

Please do not give advice on smuggling prohibited items onto an aircraft. It is one thing to argue that the policy should be changed. There was an episode of All in the Family some 30 years ago in which Archie suggested arming the passengers, so Norman Lear got there first. It is another thing to place our host or fellow Belmonters in a legal bind. Anyone caught with a modified container would be in big trouble.

keelie aka philip,
(who noted Glenn Beck's praise of Israeli security)
We have a Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) program. The problem is that since it is in TSA the wrong people may get sent in to the program and the Managers don't want the work. What Management wants is more entry level part time bag loaders. As it is the BDOs may be the wrong people who pull a few passengers just for the numbers. They do tend to catch couples going off for a romantic weekend with someone other than their spouse and college students with a drinking ID.

Ragnar D,
you have a pretty good chance of sharing your meal with an undercover air agent
Also your seat mate could be an arab in full dress with robes and head gear and you will chat affably with them safe in the knowledge that anyone on the plane is OK. Good security reduces prejudice and conflict.

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