Tuesday, January 24, 2012

TSA: Fail

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was formed to ensure America’s freedom to travel.  Instead, they have made air travel the most difficult means of mass transit in the United States, at the same time failing to make air travel any more secure.

TSA has never, (and I invite them to prove me wrong), foiled a terrorist plot or stopped an attack on an airliner. Ever. They crow about weapons found and insinuate that this means they stopped terrorism.  They claim that they can’t comment due to “national security” implications. In fact, if they had foiled a plot, criminal charges would have to be filed. Ever hear of terrorism charges being filed because of something found during a TSA screening? No, because it’s never happened. Trust me, if TSA had ever foiled a terrorist plot, they would buy full-page ads in every newspaper in the United States to prove their importance and increase their budget.

I have a unique position from which to make these statements. For 25 years, as many of readers know, I was an FBI Special Agent, and for many of those years, I was a counter-terrorism specialist. I ran the Los Angeles Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) Al Qaeda squad. I ran the JTTF’s Extra-territorial squad, which responded to terrorism against the United States or its interests throughout the world. I have investigated Al Qaeda cell operations in the United States, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, just to name a few. The FBI and the CIA provides the lion’s share of actionable intelligence on threats to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (the mother organization of TSA), so that they can tailor security screening to the actual threat.

I am, as I have said before, a political conservative, a law and order kind of guy and I get misty when the national anthem is played at a football game and jets fly over in salute.  If anything, I am pre-disposed to support the United States government.

I have been a pilot for more than 35 years. In the early years of my career, I flew aircraft for the FBI and I amassed 6,500 hours of flight time. I worked my way through college with United Airlines and was cockpit qualified to move the airliners around the ramp, fuel them and service them. I know aircraft.  My father, a former FBI Agent, worked for United from the time I was 12. We used our flight benefits to travel more than anybody I know, taking round-the-world vacations nearly every year and jumping airliners like hobos jump freight trains. During my FBI counter-terrorism years, I traveled 100,000 to 200,000 miles per year. I am intimately familiar with airline travel.

My father's position at United Airlines was Manager of Security. He had this job in the 70’s when airline security was in its infancy and he helped pioneered security procedures including the first magnetometers. He has written two textbooks on airport, aircraft, and airline security, and sat on FAA sponsored committees on airline security.

As a SWAT Agent, I was fully trained to interdict hijackings. I have trained countless hours on actual airliners, learned to shoot surgically inside the airliner “tube,” silently approach the aircraft and breach exterior doors quickly. I was also trained to shoot from airline seats in case I was aboard a hijacked flight, and for 25 years I traveled armed on airliners, meeting with Air Marshals prior to each flight.

I have dealt with TSA since its inception and FAA security prior to that. I have witnessed TSA operate since they became a separate organization in 2002 and seen their reaction to intelligence provided them. I have now watched them operate for a decade, and I have respect for their hard-working employees who are doing a thankless job. But I have come to the conclusion that TSA is one of the worst-run, ineffective and most unnecessarily intrusive agencies in the United States government.


The entire TSA paradigm is flawed. It requires an impossibility for it to succeed. For the TSA model to work, every single possible means of causing danger to an aircraft or its passengers must be eliminated. This is an impossibility. While passengers are being frisked and digitally strip-searched a few dozen yards away, cooks and dish washers at the local concourse “Chili’s” are using and cleaning butcher knives.

While bomb-sniffing dogs are run past luggage, the beach at the departure end of LAX is largely unpatrolled, and anybody with a shoulder launched missile (you know the ones they regularly shoot down U.S. helicopters with in Afghanistan) could take out any plane of their choice. I am reticent to discuss anything further that would give anybody ideas. However, these two have had wide dissemination in the media but are by NO means the biggest threats. 

I sometimes ruminate while standing in line waiting to take off my shoes, remove my belt, laptop, iPad, etc., etc., about the improvised weapons I saw in prisons and how hard they were to find. It’s fascinating what weapons prisoners can make out of plastic forks, newspapers and toothbrushes. Ask any prison guard if an inmate can make a weapon out of an everyday item, and how long it would take them.  Approximately 99% of what the average traveler carries on a plane would be considered contraband in a maximum security prison, due to the fact that it can easily be converted into a weapon. Toothbrushes, Popsicle sticks, pens, pencils, anything with wire (iPod headset), any metal object which can be sharpened, etc., etc. is a potential weapon. Carried to its logical end, TSA policy would have to require passengers to travel naked or handcuffed. (Handcuffing is the required procedure for U.S. Marshalls transporting prisoners in government aircraft.)

TSA’s de facto policy to this point has been to react to the latest thing tried by a terrorist, which is invariably something that Al Qaeda identified as a technique not addressed by current screening. While this narrows Al Qaeda’s options, their list of attack ideas remains long and they are imaginative. Therefore, if TSA continues to react to each and every new thing tried, three things are certain:

1.    Nothing Al Qaeda tries will be caught the first time because it was designed around gaps in TSA security.
2.       It is impossible to eliminate all gaps in airline security.
3.  Airline security screening based on eliminating every vulnerability will therefore fail because it is impossible. But it will by necessity become increasingly onerous and invasive on the travelers.


TSA’s “major malfunction” as R. Lee Ermey would say, is that they do not understand the threat. At least their reactions to the threat indicates an extreme naiveté regarding terrorists, their tactics and their operational philosophies. One of the major reasons that Al Qaeda has not successfully mounted a major attack in the United States since 9/11 is that Al Qaeda is analogous to a political action committee (PAC) or a political candidate. They live off donations from “legitimate” radical Muslims throughout the world. These donations are crucial, and there are many causes which compete for them. In order to keep getting those donations, Al Qaeda can’t appear to be losing, weak or incapable of an attack. Therefore, they actually put themselves in a little bit of a bind after 9/11: Their success was so spectacular that it has become almost impossible to duplicate it, much less create an even more spectacular act. Any attack that seems smaller in scope than those already achieved would make it appear as though Al Qaeda was “slipping” and terrorism dollars might go elsewhere, say to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan.

Failure is not an option for Al Qaeda; they are as risk averse as the public relations department at Disneyland. Al Qaeda is a brand to protect, and failure is bad for the brand. If there is a one in ten chance that an attack will fail, the powers-that-be will not likely green-light it.

 TSA screening, as it is now, is so predictable and known that Al Qaeda can know with absolute certainty what they can and cannot get through screening. That is valuable intelligence for them. In a word, TSA is predictable. This increases Al Qaeda’s chances of success.  It reminds me of counter-espionage surveillances against our cold-war adversaries the Soviets.  They were followed nearly all the time and they knew it. A good Soviet intelligence officer would identify the surveillance and the agents and vehicles involved in the surveillance. Then, he would be able to fulfill his “drops” and communications knowing where the surveillance was at any time. When you can see the surveillance, you know exactly what you can and cannot get away with. Only when they could not see the surveillance were they truly intimidated.

TSA would have significantly greater affect with a random-selection type of process. The benefits of random selection are: Approximately 80% fewer screeners needed, complete unpredictability of the likelihood of a search, and extremely effective searches of those, say 10%, selected. It would not reduce by 1% Al Qaeda’s belief that they could get through screening with a weapon. A 1-in-10 chance of a full search is too much of a risk for Al Qaeda. They do not plan their attacks on the “Well, it’s got a decent chance” method. They require  a sure thing. Putting explosives in a shoe and depending on a 10% chance of failure are odds they will not accept. So rather than ineffective (yet incredibly intrusive) screening of 100% of the passengers, there should be highly effective screening of an unpredictable 10% with a reduced screening requirement for the other 90%, say a magnetometer and bag X-ray, allowing people to wear their shoes, belts and pacemakers through screening.


Is this really okay with you?

 These are images created by the TSA’s “Backscatter/Body Imaging X-Ray” scanner. The images are not, they say, detailed enough to cause anybody any embarrassment. Frankly, they are intimately detailed. I am stunned, quite frankly, that the same people who fought against the Patriot Act because it was invasive and violated privacy rights have not howled about this invasion of personal privacy rights.

 I recently asked a TSA officer whether a man or a woman was conducting the screening at my “device.” I was told that it varied and they didn't know right at that moment. I declined being screened by the machine to see what the procedure was. I was then frisked—and told that by rule, I could be frisked only by a man. Good. I get that, but then, why aren't there male and female devices where like-sex screeners view the virtual strip searches. I have to be blunt here, I have a serious issue with any man I don’t know and who is not our doctor, seeing under my wife’s clothing. Maybe I’m old fashioned.

An immediate demand should be that these devices be operated with male/female devices with same-sex screeners. If that can’t be accomplished, then TSA needs to explain why. By the way, “money” will not be accepted as a justifiable reason.  They’re spending enough to cover it on other things. Don’t take my word for it; listen to a report by congressional investigators released just two months ago:

“Today, TSA's screening policies are based in theatrics. They are typical, bureaucratic responses to failed security policies meant to assuage the concerns of the traveling public.”  Translation? TSA doesn’t know what it’s doing, but is trying to put on a good show to keep the traveling public from catching on. The report, entitled, “"A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform" sharply criticized the agency,  accusing it of incompetent management.  Former DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner dropped this bomb, “The ability of TSA screeners to stop prohibited items from being carried through the sterile areas of the airports fared no better than the performance of screeners prior to September 11, 2001.”

Frankly, the professional experience I have had with TSA has frightened me. Once, when approaching screening for a flight on official FBI business, I showed my badge as I had done for decades in order to bypass screening. (You can be envious, but remember, I was one less person in line.) I was asked for my form which showed that I was armed. I was unarmed on this flight because my ultimate destination was a foreign country. I was told, "Then you have to be screened." This logic startled me, so I asked, "If I tell you I have a high-powered weapon, you will let me bypass screening, but if I tell you I'm unarmed, then I have to be screened?" The answer? "Yes. Exactly." Another time, I was bypassing screening (again on official FBI business) with my .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol, and a TSA officer noticed the clip of my pocket knife. "You can't bring a knife on board," he said. I looked at him incredulously and asked, "The semi-automatic pistol is okay, but you don't trust me with a knife?" His response was equal parts predictable and frightening, "But knives are not allowed on the planes."


Civil libertarians on both sides of the aisle should be appalled at an unauthorized use to which TSA is putting their screening: Identifying petty criminals--using one search method to achieve a secret goal. This is strictly forbidden in other government branches. In the FBI, if I had a warrant to wiretap an individual on a terrorism matter and picked-up evidence of a non-terrorism-related crime, I could not, without FBI Headquarters and a judge’s approval, use that as evidence in a criminal case. But TSA is using its screening devices to carve out a niche business. According to congress, TSA began to seek out petty criminals without congressional approval.  TSA have arrested more than 1,000 people on drug charges and other non-airline security-related offenses to date.  

The report goes on to state that the virtual strip search screening machines are a failure in that they cannot detect the type of explosives used by the “underwear bomber” or even a pistol used as a TSA’s own real-world test of the machines.  Yet TSA has spent approximately $60 billion since 2002 and now has over 65,000 employees, more than the Department of State, more than the Department of Energy, more than the Department of Labor, more than the Department of Education, more than the Department of Housing and Urban Development---combined. TSA has become, according to the report,  “an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy more concerned with……consolidating power.”

Each time the TSA is publically called to account for their actions, they fight back with fear-based press releases which usually begin with “At a time like this….” Or “Al Qaeda is planning—at this moment …..”  The tactic, of course, is to throw the spotlight off the fact that their policies are doing nothing to make America safer “at a time like this.” Sometimes doing the wrong thing is just as bad as doing nothing.

The TSA unions are now fighting against any reduction in staff, such as by implementation of more efficient protocols, hiring of contractors, or less draconian screening. It is simply not in their best interest for screening to get quicker or easier because that would require fewer screeners. The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, John Mica (R-FL) scolded; “It is time for TSA to refocus its mission based on risk and develop common sense security protocols.”


Just when I was getting to think that the backscatter x-ray images were humiliating, degrading or invasive, Susan Hallowell, Director of the TSA research lab eased my fear by consenting to have her backscatter image made public.

That’s Ms. Hallowell in the upper photo. And the two below--same day, same time.  See? What’s invasive or embarrassing about those photos? Obviously, I’m overreacting. Several things about these photos struck me; first, I of course noticed that the backscatter x-ray has cleverly detected the gun on her hip (it’s the black object just above her thong in the far left picture). That the gun would have been found by magnetometers in service since the 1970’s is likely not something they would like us to dwell on. Secondarily, I am struck by the similarity of this demonstration to the fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In that tale, a king is swindled by tailors who create for him a suit of clothes that are invisible to incompetent people. Of course, nobody would admit that they didn’t see the clothes for fear of being branded unfit for their jobs, and certainly the king wasn’t going to say anything. 

Looking at these photos, I wonder if something similar isn’t going on here. It is as if patriotic, loyal citizens who care about security and the United States of America and the lives of their fellow citizens will not see this as an abuse of power. Anybody who views these images as dehumanizing, humiliating, unnecessary or abusive are obviously not against terrorism and care little if airplanes filled with families fall to the ground.  But in this situation, it is essential that we shout “the king (or in this case the queen) has no clothes!” Going along with the status quo is the exact opposite of protecting Americans, it is the opposite of saving lives, it is the opposite of preventing terrorism, and it is the opposite of freedom and personal rights.

With the congressional spotlight on the organization, TSA is finally feeling what it's like to be screened. It has walked through the detector of bureaucratic failure and the red light has gone off. It’s time that we ask congress to have TSA “step over to this area” for a more thorough search. For once, "TSA screening" will be productive. I predict that dangerous amounts of inefficiency, derivative thinking, and reactive policy will be located, if not in their shoes, in their DNA.