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Former TSA Boss Admits Airport Screening Is Broken

from the who-replaced-kip-hawley-with-bruce-schneier dept

Just a few weeks ago, we wrote about noted TSA-critic and security expert (among other things) Bruce Schneier debating former TSA boss Kip Hawley over at the Economist. While that debate was interesting, you might be forgiven for reading a WSJ piece written by Hawley and wondering if Hawley wasn't secretly replaced by Schneier. In the article, Hawley admits that the TSA screening process is ridiculously broken, and even makes a few statements that are almost word for word repeats of criticism Schneier has directed in the TSA's direction for years. Here's a snippet:
More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorist attacks on air travel demands flexibility and the constant reassessment of threats. It also demands strong public support, which the current system has plainly failed to achieve.

The crux of the problem, as I learned in my years at the helm, is our wrongheaded approach to risk. In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple.

Any effort to rebuild TSA and get airport security right in the U.S. has to start with two basic principles:

First, the TSA's mission is to prevent a catastrophic attack on the transportation system, not to ensure that every single passenger can avoid harm while traveling. Much of the friction in the system today results from rules that are direct responses to how we were attacked on 9/11. But it's simply no longer the case that killing a few people on board a plane could lead to a hijacking. Never again will a terrorist be able to breach the cockpit simply with a box cutter or a knife. The cockpit doors have been reinforced, and passengers, flight crews and air marshals would intervene.

Second, the TSA's job is to manage risk, not to enforce regulations. Terrorists are adaptive, and we need to be adaptive, too. Regulations are always playing catch-up, because terrorists design their plots around the loopholes.
All of that sounds good... but why wasn't that the way the TSA acted under Hawley's 3.5 year tenure at the helm? As he explains it, some of it was merely giant bureaucratic institutional momentum. Some of it was political. Some of it was his own fault. Basically, there were a number of reasons -- not all of which are particular convincing for the public that's sick of the TSA, something that Hawley admits. While he does say that there are some things that make more sense than people realize (for example, he says that there are more reasons for requiring people to take off their shoes than people realize), there are other things that he admits are pretty stupid, such as the liquid restrictions. He notes that there are plans on someone's desk (which existed while he was at the TSA) that would allow people to bring the liquids they wanted -- basically by setting up separate lines for those bringing larger volumes of liquids, which can be scanned with relative ease with a software upgrade.

In the end, he suggests a few key changes to the TSA process to improve not just the airport experience, but also the safety of flying. And he notes all of these could be implemented in a matter of months if the TSA wanted to do it:

1. No more banned items: Aside from obvious weapons capable of fast, multiple killings—such as guns, toxins and explosive devices—it is time to end the TSA's use of well-trained security officers as kindergarten teachers to millions of passengers a day. The list of banned items has created an "Easter-egg hunt" mentality at the TSA. Worse, banning certain items gives terrorists a complete list of what not to use in their next attack. Lighters are banned? The next attack will use an electric trigger.

2. Allow all liquids: Simple checkpoint signage, a small software update and some traffic management are all that stand between you and bringing all your liquids on every U.S. flight. Really.

3. Give TSA officers more flexibility and rewards for initiative, and hold them accountable: No security agency on earth has the experience and pattern-recognition skills of TSA officers. We need to leverage that ability. TSA officers should have more discretion to interact with passengers and to work in looser teams throughout airports. And TSA's leaders must be prepared to support initiative even when officers make mistakes. Currently, independence on the ground is more likely to lead to discipline than reward.

4. Eliminate baggage fees: Much of the pain at TSA checkpoints these days can be attributed to passengers overstuffing their carry-on luggage to avoid baggage fees. The airlines had their reasons for implementing these fees, but the result has been a checkpoint nightmare. Airlines might increase ticket prices slightly to compensate for the lost revenue, but the main impact would be that checkpoint screening for everybody will be faster and safer.

5. Randomize security: Predictability is deadly. Banned-item lists, rigid protocols—if terrorists know what to expect at the airport, they have a greater chance of evading our system.

I think it's reasonable to criticize him for not doing more to get these changes in place while he was still in charge, but at least he's speaking out now. One key point in all of this, which often goes unnoted in the discussions of security theater, is that it often makes us less safe by the incentives it creates for TSA scanners. Above, one of his suggestions is to get rid of banned items, because of the "easter-egg hunt." As he notes elsewhere in the article, one of the problems with today's system is that agents become so focused on finding the specific "banned items" that they miss real threats. He relates the story of a test where agents were so focused on finding cigarette lighters that they missed bomb parts packed in the same bag around the lighter.

Of course, the problem in actually getting Hawley's ideas implemented remains the biggest hurdle. As much as the public hates the TSA screening process, no one is willing to make a change like this, because when an attack inevitably gets through (as it would with or without today's procedures), then the "new" security screening process will inevitably be blamed. As such, whoever agreed to put in place such a security regime would inevitably be sacrificed for "failing" in his or her job. So, you shouldn't necessarily expect any significant changes any time soon. Instead, it'll be yet another showing of traditional security theater... for old time's sake.


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  1.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 7:27am

    Well, if the screen is broken, it's no wonder agents can't see all those knives and guns people managed to sneak through the scanners.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 7:32am

    How long after implementation does #3 lead to profiling lawsuits?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 7:32am

    "No security agency on earth has the experience and pattern-recognition skills of TSA officers."

    What.

     

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    TasMot (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 7:37am

    OK, lets not do a Big "Blame-able" change

    Just as the miserable set of rules we have today have evolved from bad to worse, incrementally. Why can't the TSA start incrementally implementing better rules, one at a time, over the next couple of years. Try out each rule change for a little while, then move on to the next one. At least this way, the effect of each rule can be evaluated rather than just a mess of all kinds of new rules at once.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 7:48am

    The answer is simple: Privatise the airports, define legal liability and make TSA independent of government, but economically liable.

    You have just created a system where potential economic damage will determine how to design security. And furthermore it is closer to the system the rest of the world is using.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 7:54am

    Re:

    Because they don't have those already?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 7:57am

    "2. Allow all liquids: Simple checkpoint signage, a small software update and some traffic management are all that stand between you and bringing all your liquids on every U.S. flight. Really."

    Really? Do tell.

    Are they going to have enough equipment to test every bottle, every flask, every shampoo and cologne bottle to make sure it is what it really is?

    You can bring almost any liquid you want on the plane already, you just cannot bring a lot of it.

    Change this rule, and you just make it many times easier to take a plane out of the sky with an improvised explosive device.

     

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    ofb2632 (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 7:57am

    Missing the obvious

    What this article is missing is the fact that if they allow us to bring our drinks past security, we no longer have to purchase those same drinks at twice the price. Alot of the items on the restricted list you can purchase for a giant hike in price in any of the 'stores' past security. You can purchase a steel back scratchier!! Anyone with training can do major damage with that. If they allow us to bring what we want, the airports will see a massive drop in revenue. The TSA is doing what it is designed for. Protecting the airport. That also means protecting revenue.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:00am

    The TSA isn't the cause of baggage fees, it's the airlines, wanting an excuse to have a lower ticket price listed online by hiding costs in other areas.

    Also AC #5, no, privatising the TSA won't do any good when it's the government who sets the requirements of what the security people should search for. Plus most TSA workers already make minimum wage, which is part of why TSA workers have over a 100% annual turnover rate, so you'd only be shifting the costs onto the airlines.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:03am

    "But it's simply no longer the case that killing a few people on board a plane could lead to a hijacking. Never again will a terrorist be able to breach the cockpit simply with a box cutter or a knife."

    Exactly. And me with the knife that I carry every day would actually be a deterrent to the kind of catastrophic attack the TSA is here to prevent.

    And they're dead on with the baggage fees: they make everyone less safe, just so the airlines can claim the fare is $430 (+$25 each way) instead of $480. For the safety of all of us the authorities should be discouraging carry ons in favor of checked baggage.

     

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    TtfnJohn (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:06am

    There's nothing Hawley says that's wrong. Particularly is points about the fact that any terrorist wanting to attack an aircraft just has to consult a list of hard and fast rules to get around the security system.

    While I can the the possibility (probability?) of profiling lawsuits in a litigious society like the United States if #3 is implemented let's not forget that TSA has been accused of that under the current system. Not to mention scanning of attractive women well...just because.

    At the same time, as Hawley also points out that on board security has become so good that an attack on an aircraft from inside the cabin has been reduced. Not to impossible but that a terrorist would be faced with a nightmare attempting to hijack the plane. All of which may have made attempts to hijack an aircraft flight that originates in the United States less "profitable" in the sense that these people have a point to make and can't make it if the attack fails.

    In reply to TasMot I'd suggest that that's what Hawley has in mind while relaxing the sillier of the rules such as the ban of fluids. A moving target such as what Hawley and other TSA critics suggest is just harder for a bad guy to figure out and hit.

    Keeping in mind that nothing is 100% and should (when) another attack occurs TSA is in the unfortunate positition about being damned if they do and damned if they don't. Either way, they'll get hammered for failing.

     

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    New Mexico Mark, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:08am

    Re:

    This is not as unreasonable as it sounds at first blush. Remember, birds have been utilized in quality control because of their pattern recognition skills. Given the number of birdbrains working for the TSA, I'm not surprised that this skill is prevalent.

     

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    Alfred E von Neumann, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:11am

    Airport Screening Is Broken?

    The whole fucking country is broken.

    What, me worry?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:14am

    Re:

    Unlike now, where they pull Apu, Abu, Muhammad, and....uh....Mary aside for screenings? They could still have a fake screening or 2 here and there to make it not technically profiling, the same way as they do now.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:15am

    Re: OK, lets not do a Big "Blame-able" change

    Because that's working under the assumption that the system they currently have is a few small rule changes away from working correctly.

     

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    Gwiz (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:17am

    Re:

    The TSA isn't the cause of baggage fees, it's the airlines, wanting an excuse to have a lower ticket price listed online by hiding costs in other areas.

    Right. No one is claiming the TSA was the cause of baggage fees.

    The baggage fees are causing slower checkpoint screening because everyone is over-stuffing their carry-ons to avoid the fees.

     

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    Angus, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:17am

    TSA isn't protecting passengers.

    It is protecting the TSA budget and the TSA employee's jobs. The last paragraph is the real reason we have to go through all this crap.

     

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    lexieliberty (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:21am

    It's All Too Much

    You go through one security check--they say you can only carry matches. You go through another one and they say you can only take lighters.

    The banned list is pure stupidity. The TSA doesn't even know whats banned or not anymore it's a big fucking mess. I think what this article doesn't shine light on is the no flight list. The no flight list has BABIES on it.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:22am

    Re:

    Here's the test to implement. And hey, good news, it takes NO new technology.

    First, let the agent inspect it to make sure it generally seems like it is what they're saying it is (drink, shampoo, etc.)

    1) Is it something you are supposed to drink? OK, here's a small, plastic cup. Pour a small amount into it and drink it in front of the agent.

    2) Is it soap/shampoo? OK, rub a little bit onto the back of your hand in front of the agent, wait a short time, rinse it off (small sink or water supply and drain needed, of course).

    etc.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:31am

    Re:

    Actually, you can bring a lot of it, as long as it is separate containers. But don't worry, I'm sure the theater will protect you.

     

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    Pwdrskir (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:36am

    Re: TSA isn't protecting passengers.

    As long as the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) controls the TSA, We the People get the shaft with bad service and window dressing security.

    SF International Airport should be the model we follow. They are private, give incentives to their employees and have a better record than the TSA of finding “real” threats.

     

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    Call me Al, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:42am

    Re: It's All Too Much

    "I think what this article doesn't shine light on is the no flight list. The no flight list has BABIES on it."

    Ah but are they combustible?

     

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    That Crazy Freetard (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 8:53am

    Re:


    You can bring almost any liquid you want on the plane already, you just cannot bring a lot of it.


    False.

    You cannot bring a single 12 oz. bottle of shampoo onboard, but 3 four oz. bottles are ok.

    The current system is security theater, nothing more. Changing this rule, as implied above makes no one less safe.

     

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    Jeremy, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 9:15am

    "No security agency on earth has the experience and pattern-recognition skills of TSA officers."

    ^^ LOL He's on the good stuff.

     

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    Justin, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 9:25am

    Why the crap didn't he do something about it WHILE HE WAS IN CHARGE OF THE GOD DAMN THING?

    Nope, let me quit, THEN I'LL SHOW THEM ALL!

    What the crap is that about?
    You run the damn thing, make the damn changes.

     

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    Liz (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 9:41am

    "...it is time to end the TSA's use of well-trained security officers"


    When did they have well-trained security officers?

     

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  27.  
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    Paul Hobbs (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 9:48am

    Re:

    What exactly is the problem with profiling? Like it or not, most acts of terrorism (directed against the USA) in the past decade were carried out by people of Middle Eastern or African extraction. There are a whole host of reasons for this, many of them political and in no way related to race or ethnicity. But that is the reality you (Americans) face.

    I assume that the main argument against profiling is that it assumes guilt on the basis of appearance. Which naturally means that a reasonable number of innocent people would be subjected to fairly intense scrutiny. I would counter that by saying that the current system assumes EVERYONE is guilty, which is preposterous. Not everyone is likely to be a terrorist. And some people are absolutely more likely to be terrorists. So, you can have a system which assumes everyone is a likely terrorist, and treats them accordingly. Or you can have a system which recognises that there are different probabilities of people being a terrorist, and that you deal with the high probability people differently than the low probability people. And the other thing is that profiling is much more than just looking at appearance or ethnicity. If that was all it was, I agree that it should be avoided (if only because it would be easy to evade by simply recruiting someone who looks "OK"). Profiling, done properly in the context of security, considers a whole range of factors, of which appearance is just one.

    The Israelis have been practising profiling as part of their security protocols for decades, and while it can be very intrusive for a relatively small number of people, for the majority, passing through airport security is relatively painless. Essentially, the Israeli position is that when it comes to security, there is no room for political correctness.

    Rafi Sela, former chief security officer at the Israel Airport Authority has this to say: "[many] airports are so concentrated on finding your bottles of water and perfumes that they don't even look at you. The security personnel forget that they are in the business of looking for terrorists."

    Granted, it is easy for me to advocate in favour of profiling because I don't fit the profile of a "typical" terrorist, and perhaps I would less inclined to support such a measure if I did fit the profile.

    I'm also not sure I agree with one of the statements made by the former TSA boss: "No security agency on earth has the experience and pattern-recognition skills of TSA officers".

    It seems to me that the TSA could benefit from a dose of humble pie and seek advice from the people who have been doing this type of thing a lot longer (and a lot better).

     

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    Mike Masnick (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 10:05am

    Re: Re:

    What exactly is the problem with profiling? Like it or not, most acts of terrorism (directed against the USA) in the past decade were carried out by people of Middle Eastern or African extraction.

    You chose the past decade, but if you go back just slightly further, you have things like the Oklahoma City bombing, which was *not* carried out by someone of Middle Eastern or African extraction.

    Domestic terrorism happens. Thinking that white people don't blow shit up is wrong.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 10:24am

    Re: Re:

    The problem with profiling is the same as the problem with ban lists. Racial profiling creates a similar Easter Egg hunt for people of specific races and can lead to ignoring obvious threats in favor of targeting specific races. Israel is only a microcosm that doesn't extrapolate to much larger much more ethnically diverse nations like the US or most EU countries.

     

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    Drew (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 10:29am

    These morons will get fired up over pretty much anything.

    Sir take off your shoes.

    OMG There is nuclear lint in the shoes!! SHOOT EM NOW ASK QUESTIONS LATER!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 10:33am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Or if you go all the way back to Feb of 2010 for Andrew Joseph Stack III flying a plan into an IRS building in Texas.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 10:42am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    *plane maybe he flew some plans into them too though...

     

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    rubberpants, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 10:53am

    The cynic in me thinks that the only reason he's saying these things is because he thinks that he can make money from the companies that would implement these changes and that he's simply jealous of Chertoff's scanner lottery ticket.

     

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    GuySaults (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 10:57am

    Impossible task

    The TSA has an impossible task. Complaints against the TSA will continue to grow more strident right up until the first successful attack, then everyone will want to know where the TSA was and why their own pet projects and common-sense best practices were not in place. It is no surprise to this frequent flyer that the checkpoint staff ain't the best and brightest -- who in their right minds would want to to that job if they had other options?

     

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    PlagueSD (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 11:12am

    The next time I plan on flying, I'm going to wear the same pair of socks for 2 weeks. I'm gonna love the fun in the airport when they have me take my shoes off...

     

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    Paul Hobbs (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 11:21am

    Re: Re: Re:

    You're absolutely right, but I also said "most acts of terrorism". I fully recognise that there is domestic terrorism (in many countries, not just the USA). I don't know for certain, but I suspect that even if you look back several decades, for each case of domestic terrorism (in the USA) carried out by "white people", there would be multiple cases of terrorism carried out by "non-white people". Maybe not all on US soil, but certainly directed at the USA.

    Please don't misunderstand me - the fact that someone is not white is clearly not what makes them more (or less) likely to be a terrorist. Terrorists are made, not born. But to make a terrorist requires certain conditions, and it so happens that those conditions are more prevalent in certain parts of the world. I also don't think it is a coincidence that many of those places where terrorists are more likely to be "produced" are places where the US has a strong military presence and where there is a strong resentment towards the USA for "meddling". But that is a whole other debate. :-)

    By way of an analogy, what I am saying is that if you know that 80% of the heroin being imported into the USA comes from Colombia, and that 80% of the mules who have been caught are Colombian, then you would be dumb not to pay close attention to Colombians. But you don't just look at Colombians. You look at how drug mules behave, study the surveillance footage of mules who have been caught in the past - were they nervous; how did the carry themselves; what was their general demeanour; etc. Then you look for tell-tale signs in anyone passing through the airport, but you focus more on Colombians than on 87 year old white ladies. Sure, the little old lady *could* be a drug mule, but it is pretty unlikely. That said, I think the War on Drugs is as stupid and misguided as the War on Terror.

    Ultimately, I think effective profiling is more about studying behaviour than ethnicity, but you can't ignore ethnicity. And I suspect if the general public was better educated with regard to the key "tells" of someone who is prone to doing massive violence, as a community we may be able to prevent tragedies like Oklahoma City or Columbine or Port Arthur or the massacre in Norway last year. That doesn't mean everyone needs to be an expert "profiler" in the FBI sense. It just means that people pay attention to their friends and neighbours, etc. Of course, at the same time we don't want to end up with a situation where everyone is a volunteer spy for the government - that would be even worse. But there must be some way for society to keep a collective (and benevolent) eye on its members without turning into Orwell's Oceania.

     

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    Paul Hobbs (profile), Apr 17th, 2012 @ 11:26am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    I should mention I just made up the percentages in relation to heroin and Colombia. I was just trying to make a point.

     

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    Mick, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 2:08pm

    TSA

    There have been countless billions spent since 9-11 and does ANYONE feel safer with the TSA in charge of passenger screening. Only those who work for TSA and the Gestapo Chief in charge. Watching old ladies in wheelchairs and young children being frisked makes me want to physically intervene...it make me sick to see the scare tactics used under the guise of national security. Sadly we will never again be a free country...we have relinquished that right and instead given it to our government to dole out as they see fit. One more thing...how many of our representatives in congress go through this humiliating experience...oh that's right, they have separate lines because THEY are trusted but you and I are not.

     

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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 5:50pm

    Re: What exactly is the problem with profiling?

     

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    Bob, Apr 17th, 2012 @ 7:11pm

    Tsa

    As I have always said, one could drive a mac truck thru tsa and they would not notice!

     

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    Less is More, Apr 18th, 2012 @ 4:33am

    Found Money

    The TSA is ineffective and is a complete waste of money. I would happily get on a plane without having the passengers screened. I have no confidence that the TSA would ever discover any threat and if they reported such a discovery in the news, at this point I would think it was fake. All they do is terrorize little kids, grandmas and people in wheelchairs. Useless.

     

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    Walks-In-Storms, Apr 18th, 2012 @ 5:51am

    1've wondered since I was a soldier (thirty-six years ago), why it always is that we chose privates to stand guard over us all while we slept. I keep wondering now why we make a McJob of guarding airliners against being blown out of the sky. I guess I could ask the same question concerning the people we choose to run our government - and that at all levels.

    For years - matter of fact - part of my professional income was earned by demonstrating that I could make monkeys of security systems and staffs. Not that long ago when a friend realized he still had his PPK in an ankle holster as we were next in line to go through airport scanners, I took the gun, tehn gave it back to him after we had landed at our destination.

    My point? Just keep leaving your lives to government protection, and watch what happens to your country.

     

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    Walks-In-Storms (profile), Apr 18th, 2012 @ 5:54am

    I've wondered since I was a soldier (thirty-six years ago), why it always is that we chose privates to stand guard over us all while we slept. I keep wondering now why we make a McJob of guarding airliners against being blown out of the sky. I guess I could ask the same question concerning the people we choose to run our government - and that at all levels.

    For years - matter of fact - part of my professional income was earned by demonstrating that I could make monkeys of security systems and staffs. Not that long ago when a friend realized he still had his PPK in an ankle holster as we were next in line to go through airport scanners, I took the gun, then gave it back to him after we had landed at our destination.

    My point? Just keep leaving your lives to government protection, and watch what happens to your country.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  44.  
    icon
    Gerald Robinson (profile), Apr 18th, 2012 @ 12:10pm

    Baggage theft

    Eliminate the fees but also eliminate the theft!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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