Study: The TSA's Security Theater Troupes Missed 95% Of Smuggled Weapons And Explosives

from the security-theater dept

When it’s not aggressively groping patrons, being outwitted by TSA-safe luggage, failing to understand the First Amendment, trying to expand its authority in strange and aggressive new ways or burning through taxpayer money, there’s a popular narrative afoot that the Transportation Security Administration is supposed to protect air travelers and secure airports. Of course, as we’ve well documented, the agency is exceptionally awful at that as well, resulting in what it does being far more akin to security theater than anything resembling actual security.

The latest case in point: an internal Homeland Security Inspector General investigation of the TSA revealing massive failure on the part of the TSA across dozens of the country’s busiest airports. According to a copy of the findings, undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through security checkpoints — 95% of the time:

“According to officials briefed on the results of a recent Homeland Security Inspector General?s report, TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints. In one test an undercover agent was stopped after setting off an alarm at a magnetometer, but TSA screeners failed to detect a fake explosive device that was taped to his back during a follow-on pat down. Officials would not divulge the exact time period of the testing other than to say it concluded recently.”

That’s not just a little dysfunction, that’s a wholesale systemic breakdown, and it once again raises the question of what precisely taxpayers are paying for. And while the TSA is quick to consistently insist it’s making improvements every day, this is effectively the same thing that happened last year when a “red team” member was able to smuggle a mock bomb onto an airplane. This latest survey also piggybacks on earlier reports that indicate no matter how much money we throw at the TSA, it’s still awful at doing its job, whether that’s passenger or luggage screening:

“That review found ?vulnerabilities? throughout the system, attributing them to human error and technological failures, according to a three-paragraph summary of the review released in September. In addition, the review determined that despite spending $540 million for checked baggage screening equipment and another $11 million for training since a previous review in 2009, the TSA failed to make any noticeable improvements in that time.”

Great job, team! Of course, whenever you find this level of dysfunction you can usually find a dodgy money trail — since just like nation destroying and rebuilding — presenting the illusion of security is extremely profitable. That likely won’t be getting better anytime soon, with a lobbyist for Rapiscan Systems (the company that provides the controversial X-ray scanners used in most major airports) taking a job with the House Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee, which oversees the TSA budget. We’ve been talking about Rapiscan’s overly-cozy relationship with government for five years now.

Realizing how broken the TSA truly is can easily lead one down the path of worrying that there’s a much thinner line between you and being wind-dispersed fertilizer than most would care to admit. But as Robert Graham points out, the fact that the TSA is horrible at its job — combined with the fact that planes aren’t exploding — statistically suggests that bombs are a much smaller threat to airplanes than we’ve historically assumed:

“This leads to a counter-intuitive result that the TSA is really not stopping any danger. If guns and bombs are getting on planes, but planes aren’t falling out of the sky, it must mean that they aren’t a danger. I point this out because in the end, safety is an emotional thing rather than logical. No matter how much I do the math, people do not believe it. They believe bombs are a danger to airplanes in much the same way many don’t believe the safety statistics compared to driving.”

Note that’s not to say we don’t the need the hidden and not-so-hidden security apparatus that exists outside of this costly new game of make believe. But these latest findings continue to prop up the argument that the TSA is a glorified high school theater troupe playing dress up, doing little more than adding a very expensive layer of dysfunction to the already frequently-dismal air travel experience.

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Comments on “Study: The TSA's Security Theater Troupes Missed 95% Of Smuggled Weapons And Explosives”

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53 Comments
Wickedsmack (profile) says:

What would be better?

Is it possible to hire private security companies under contract to handle flight security? I would have to assume they can’t be any worse than TSA at their job, and assuming they would like to keep a contract worth a goodly amount of money, wouldn’t they tend to do a better job? Not being sarcastic, looking for more educated input than my own.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Why airports aren't hiring private firms

I suspect that the TSA services are low-cost as far as security theater goes.

Also, the government takes the rap if there’s a problem.

On the other hand that might be a good direction for marketing. Keep your shoes on at Los Angeles International Airport! Zip right through Xe International’s non-invasive security procedures! (child: I got to keep my water bottle!)

Ben (profile) says:

Re: Re: What would be better?

Look at the issues with the liability of airlines following the 11SEP2001 “events”. Until the government absolved them, they were on the hook for being sued (negligence contributing to the disaster(s) at the least). At that time security screening was paid for by the airlines; letting the government take it over lets them off the hook if bad guys get through again.

All the security theater has done for me is reduce my willingness to go on airplanes, not because of the airplanes and cattle-car like amenities, but just the pain and hassle of getting through airports. I have better uses for my time.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What would be better?

Yes. Everything that a “government” does could be done better. However, the idea that human beings need a government is one of the most widely held beliefs today and given that it is a belief in a man made idea it is actually the biggest religion in the world. This is the problem. Learn to not be reliant on anything the government provides by being as self sufficient and accountable for your actions as possible. Hopefully in one to five hundred years humanity will be able to rid itself of the cancerous “government” in order to actually be free rather than just think we are.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: What would be better?

“the idea that human beings need a government is one of the most widely held beliefs today”

It’s not that human beings need a government. It’s that a government is the inevitable consequence of human beings working together. The only way to escape government completely is to never cooperate with other human beings.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: What would be better?

It’s that a government is the inevitable consequence of human beings working together.

I think it’s more a combination of two things. One, people are notoriously bad at judging character. LEOs still believe in lie detectors despite evidence which screams against their validity. This should be fixable by just doing decent research of a person’s past and interviews with people who know the subject in question.

Two, and it may be a corollary of the first, there’s always going to be creepy grasping jerks drawn to concentrations of money and power. Because of “One”, the Bernie Madoffs and Sepp Blatters can go for decades skimming from the till before it finally blows up in our faces. The only fix for that is eternal vigilance, question everything, don’t get lazy, and don’t get suckered. Especially, don’t get lazy!

It should be simple to design a gov’t which is small, only does what we all need it to do, doesn’t allow itself to get corrupted or captured, and keeps itself honest and out of reach of those who’d try to co-opt it or muscle in to get at the goodies.

Laziness and apathy on our part lets them get away with it.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 What would be better?

And by all that, I mean I can easily see nation of anarchists building a society based around small town values, populated by Atticus Finch’s who watch out for rabid dogs, watch each others’ property (or children) when they’re away, and keep an eye on unknown strangers ambling through town.

I can’t believe that anyone gains with monsters like DC (or Ottawa) siphoning off billions or trillions of dollars to build abominations like the CIA or 17 overlapping spy agencies, or crapfests like Wall St.

The gov’ts we have built are hardly better than the sort of thing the Don Corleones were valued for, nor much different than what the Medicis came up with.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 "a society based around small town values"

This phrase terrifies me, since when I think of small town values, I think of strangers getting run out of town for possessing the wrong religious icons (e.g. a Prius rather than a Nova) and women getting stoned to death for getting pregnant out of wedlock.

So yes, do please be specific what kinds of small town values you have in mind.

I’d also be concerned that small town values only come from having small towns, where many many of us live among denser populations, and because of our denser populations we benefit from some pretty amazing infrastructures.

So yeah, I’d be concerned that a vote for small town values would be a vote against the internet, cell phone networks, the interstate highway system, the space program and fifteen kinds of cheese at the grocery store and candies that fizz in your mouth.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 "a society based around small town values"

“This phrase terrifies me”

I agree. To me, “small town values” is a code phrase indicating all kinds of terrible things, probably because most of the time that I hear it, it comes from the lips of people who are defending terrible things.

I don’t think that’s what tqk is intending to convey with the phrase, though.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 "a society based around small town values"

To me, “small town values” is a code phrase indicating all kinds of terrible things, probably because most of the time that I hear it, it comes from the lips of people who are defending terrible things.

You’ve got to wonder about the sort of ignorance that lets those people get away with it.

The guy on the squeaky clean TV show espousing family values? Molesting female family members just a few years ago. The guy who got the World Cup to Africa? Millions in bribes changing hands for almost two decades. John Gotti was a neighborhood hero until the feds caught up to him.

We are really lousy at judging integrity and honesty.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 "a society based around small town values"

The Devil’s in the details. I see what you mean and agree that’s ugly stuff, but when I use it it’s intended to convey such ideas as live and let live, mind your own business, honesty is the best policy, & etc. I see little value in conformity. I prefer people to know what’s right because it’s objectively right, not because peers or overlords say it’s right.

The people I imagine would know the value of education so they’d be educated. They’d realize children and young people are still growing and learning so they deserve enough slack to do that at the same time that they still need supervision to stay out of trouble, and we should accept the fact that they are going to get into trouble because they’re still learning and growing.

I don’t think any of this is dependant upon small town population. Even big city neighborhoods can work this way. Don Corleone and John Gotti lived in tightly controlled neighborhoods within big cities.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What would be better?

They can’t be worse but they can’t do it better. Some of it might be the TSAs fault but if you want to get something on a plane there is nothing they can do.
The whole program isn’t about your water bottle or some small knife but to prevent a terrorist from blowing up the plane. And except for maybe x-ray or dissecting the body there is nothing anyone can do to stop that. Because if the body scanners get too good at what they do you put the stuff inside the body. At least thats what I learned from movies, people swallow/implant drugs to prevent detection.

In my opinion, in the end it doesnt matter if it’s TSA or Constellis Group.

ltlw0lf (profile) says:

Re: I read that "Rapescan"

Did anyone else read Rapiscan as Rapescan or is it just me?

It certainly isn’t just you. I read it that way too.

Though I think a better name for it, based on the context would be Pillagescan (as in how much money is lost on these useless devices,) since it is really the only part of the process where you don’t get fondled (though that comes after they get to see you naked.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Out of curiosity, does anyone have any actual statistics on the number of bombs detonated on planes while in flight? How does that number compare to the number of plane hijackings?

It’s not something I’ve looked for before, but I’m pretty certain that the number is both small, and smaller than the number of hijackings, or it would figure fairly prominently in the lists of plane crashes I’ve had reason to look at a time or two.

Anonymous Coward says:

It is not about making people safe.

It is about conditioning people to living in a police state and accepting whatever the man with the gun tells you do without using your brain first.

See the red light green light at airports for no reason other than they find it fun to force people to stop and do nothing for no reason.

John85851 (profile) says:

I think we found the reason for TSA

As has been said many times, and as Robert Graham points out, if people think bombs are a threat, then the logical solution is to make people feel safe. How do we do that? By making everyone walk through “security screening”. Does this actually catch a terrorist or stop a bomb? It doesn’t need to, when statistics say no one will bring a bomb on an airplane anyway. It just needs to make people “feel safe”, even though there’s a big difference between feeling safe and actually being safe.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Many tiger-repellant rocks could be had for cheaper...

…without subjecting attractive passengers to nudie scans and strip searches (the footage of which is passed round the office as an undisclosed perk)

…without the inconvenience of arriving at the airport two hours before take-off for sake of long lines and shoe scans

…without the necessity of detaining passengers from catching their flight (sometimes for hours or even days without food, water or accommodations) because an agent didn’t like their color or their head covering or their flashcards.

…without the necessity of confiscating flatware, toiletries, curios and electronics that a given agent fancies for his very own use.

…without the extrajudicial no-fly list that prevents people from air travel for no valid reason whatsoever.

…without statistically killing more people than the 9/11 attacks by scaring them away from air travel and onto the interstate highway system.

Did i miss anything?

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