Surprisingly Rational TSA Plan To Drop Screening At Small Airports Has Almost Zero Chance Of Getting Off The Ground
from the zero-risk-of-this-ever-being-implemented dept
Finally, the TSA is considering making a smart move. After years of reacting to each attempted terrorist attack by creating another set of forbidden items based on the attack it failed to prevent, the TSA is thinking about moving away from defeatist arbitrage and towards making flying slightly more tolerable.
Internal documents from a TSA working group say the proposal to cut screening at small and some medium-sized airports serving aircraft with 60 seats or fewer could bring a “small (non-zero) undesirable increase in risk related to additional adversary opportunity.”
The internal documents from June and July suggest the move could save $115 million annually, money that could be used to bolster security at larger airports.
The non-zero risk is that terrorists will target small airports and small planes. Is that risk worth taking? Yes. But, of course, that answer will turn to “No” as soon as an attack originates from one of these airports. Even with the overall risk of death-by-terrorist being extremely low, any attack at all will be used as proof the TSA’s small airport approach has failed.
But this doesn’t eliminate screening completely. With this proposal, those who have bypassed screening at smaller airports will receive the full TSA treatment when they arrive at a larger airport. So, it’s not like most passengers embarking from a small airport will bypass screening for their entire flight. If terrorists want to take down a plane, it will be a small one flying to another small airport.
Of course, a lot of the risk assumption is based on another assumption: that the TSA actually prevents terrorist attacks. There’s a lot of evidence indicating it doesn’t. Screeners miss explosives and other dangerous objects at an alarming rate. And for all the bragging the TSA does about taking harmless objects away from passengers, attempted terrorist attacks have always been thwarted in the air by passengers, rather than by TSA agents on the ground or air marshals on the targeted planes.
Some feel this will result in increased attacks.
CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank said it was “stunning that this is even seriously being considered.”
“This is so dangerous,” a TSA field leader at a large airport said. The individual is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Two senior TSA officials, who asked not to be identified, expressed serious national security concerns over the proposal.
It’s not wrong to have concerns. The question is whether the concerns are worth scuttling the plan. The TSA itself has (inadvertently) admitted it doesn’t believe terrorists are targeting planes. There are other, cheaper, less preventable ways to kill and injure dozens of people. The current favored attack vector is the ground, which means everyone standing around waiting to get their bodies and possession pawed at by security are sitting ducks surrounded by garbage cans full of “explosive” liquids.
What makes this plan seem so bold is its willingness to step away from the “if even one attack is prevented, it’s worth it” thinking. So much of the stasis we see in government is based on this thinking. No one wants to change anything — even the stuff shown to be mostly useless — because no one wants to take the heat if an attack happens after changes are made.
It’s highly unlikely the TSA will ever implement this plan. I would imagine Congress would step in and take this discretion away from the agency if it ever appears the TSA is going to move forward on trimming back screening at low-risk airports. That legislative action may come sooner, rather than later, as it’s apparently tied to something Congress can directly control.
TSA spokesman Michael Bilello said the study reflects a recurring debate within the agency about its legal requirements.
“This is not a new issue,” he said via email. “The regulations which established TSA does not require screening below a certain level, so every year is ‘the year’ that TSA will reconsider screening.” Bilello did not respond to a request for the text of the regulations.
If commonsense needs to be eliminated from our air safety programs, Congress will be all over it. But there’s only one air safety plan with “non-zero risks:” eliminating air travel. The TSA’s years of minimal competence have not made traveling any safer, but forcing travelers to drive everywhere will certainly ramp up fatalities. The odds are super low anyone is going to die in a terrorist attack, but we continue to treat it as a problem worth throwing billions of dollars at every year.
The real downside to this proposal is the supposed savings: $115 million. It’s a drop in the natsec bucket and it will only be used by the TSA to fund other programs that don’t work either.