Reason TV takes on the favorite whipping bureaucracy these days, the Transportation Security Administration, in its latest video. A clever spoof of a public-relations ad, Reason gives a couple of trenchant criticisms but also adds to some of the unfair criticism of the agency after the EunuchBomber attack last month:
We’re the Transportation Security Administration. We’re working hard to make sure you enjoy a safe flight. And while we cannot apprehend every terrorist, you can count on us to do what we’re trained to do whenever there’s a security breach–overreact to tiny threats.
Overreact to tiny threats; ignore the big ones. That’s what we do, and we do it better than anyone.
Overreact? Well, yes they did. TSA responded to the EunuchBomber attack by immediately announcing a series of protocol changes that would have done nothing to actually have prevented the detonation of the bomb — but would inconvenience everyone who flies into the US. Those changes include no one being allowed out of their seats in the final hour of the flight, even though Umar Abdulmutallab prepped his underwear earlier and actually didn’t give it enough time to process — and could have prepped it any time after passing through security. TSA also banned the use of laptops on international flights coming to the US even though that had nothing to do with the attempted bombing.
That’s a fair point. But the criticism of allowing Abdulmutallab on the flight is not fair at all. First, TSA did not provide security for the flight on which Abdulmutallab took; since it originated in Amsterdam, the Dutch did the security screening. The failure that allowed Abdulmutallab to fly didn’t come from the TSA, but from a combined failure of the CIA, the DNI, and the State Department to revoke his visa and put him on the no-fly list on which he clearly belonged.
We obviously need to recalculate our strategies and processes for flight screening, both here and abroad. TSA needs a top-to-bottom review, and we need to stop overburdening travelers with useless demands and start focusing on the terrorists. But we can’t blame TSA for Abdulmutallab, and we should make sure we focus our criticism properly if we want to see the kind of rapid improvement we need.
In terms of changing those strategies, would anyone have expected David Frum to argue for profiling?
In the early 2000s, the airlines proposed “trusted traveler” programs. Individuals who wished to pass more easily through airports could volunteer to disclose information to confirm that they presented little threat: length of time at their current residence, for example. These pieces of information would together generate a risk profile, and people who scored low would pass more easily. (The governments of the U.S. and Canada operate an analogous program at North American customs and immigration crossing points.)
Repeatedly, however, civil liberties groups objected to these proposals. They complained that the information requested was intrusive and excessive. Perhaps they also surmised that the passengers who would speed through the lines would be older, richer, more employed, more native-born, and more married than those waiting for Murphy-style questioning.
But of course it is the younger, poorer, less employed, less native-born and less married who are more likely to commit an attack — and who are thus more appropriate persons for scrutiny.
And once we get that through our heads, we can apply our resources to where the most risk lies, making air travel more efficient and safe for everyone. That’s not a bureaucratic TSA problem — that’s a political problem that needs to be addressed.