A conversation with TSA
I recently met someone from the TSA in a social context. This was the first time I’ve ever met a TSA’er outside the context of his or her job. I tried to restrain myself – and mostly succeeded – but our discussions inevitably centered around the agency, how travelers view it, and what it could be doing differently so as to become more effective. This conversation was in a social context and off-the-record, so I’m going to leaves names and other identifying details out of this.
This particular TSA employee was not as gung-ho as others I have spoken to, but had consumed enough TSA ‘Kool-Aid’ to use familiar talking points while discussing the issues with me. For the public good, I’m going to focus on these points and deconstruct them to illustrate what a shaky foundation this organization rests on.
TSA Point 1: If the public knew what I know – even here in this state – they would be scared
Fear is the whole point. TSA wants us to be scared. Scared people are easy to control. Scared people will often sacrifice liberty for perceived security. Scared people don’t challenge the system. TSA’s argument goes like this: I have special knowledge. Knowledge so terrifying that the general public couldn’t handle it. Because I have this special knowledge, you have to trust that what I’m doing is correct and do what I say. This “special knowledge” claim could be invoked to win an argument in almost any context. How does one refute facts to which he has no access? My conclusion: This is TSA’s fall back claim whenever it doesn’t have a logical or reasonable answer. It’s a shield of untruth they hide behind often.
TSA Point 2: TSA has caught terrorists
I made the point that TSA has caught exactly zero terrorists since it was founded, a fact which has been well documented by reputable media sources. The TSA’er disagreed, insisting that the agency has in fact caught “terrorists”. When I probed further, this person admitted it had not happened at any screening checkpoints, but rather while the bad guys were in the planning process. As TSA has no law enforcement authority, I’d say that it was the investigating law enforcement agency that caught the terrorists. My broader point stands: no would-be terrorist has ever been stopped by a TSA screening checkpoint. Any TSA role in apprehending a terrorist in the planning stages was marginal at best.
TSA Point 3: The metal detector and an explosive trace residue (ETD) swab would not detect most bombs
This point came up after I questioned the efficacy of the naked scanners, and asserted that a metal detector and explosive trace swab would be a more effective, less invasive method of screening. The TSA employee disagreed, stating that these combined methods would not catch many explosive devices. Forgetting for a moment that metal detectors served us perfectly well until the introduction of the naked scanners in 2007, this is silly reasoning that ignores science. If you have an explosive taped to your body, it’s impossible not to have trace residue leak out, which would likely be detected by an ETD swab. If the TSA person’s point is correct, the swabs are utterly useless and should be discontinued immediately as ineffective. So which is it? If the swabs work, there must be some other reason TSA wants us to believe that the naked scanners are superior. Could it be that they have so much invested – financially and PR-wise – that they can’t walk them back at this point, even if they wanted to?
TSA Point 4: The images from the naked scanners are “not that bad”
This statement completely misses the point. Objections to the TSA’s use of the naked scanners stretch across a broad range of issues. Personally I have three main objections:
• Constitutionality: Without getting into the legalese of administrative search doctrine, I believe that in using the scanners the TSA has exceeded its court-granted authority to conduct searches for weapons and explosives. Creating a naked image – whether “that bad” or not – is a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
• Health: There are two types of scanner: Backscatter X-ray and Millimeter Wave. While TSA assures us that the ionizing radiation emitted from the backscatter machines is perfectly safe, this is an agency that has been caught in more lies than I can remember. The TSA squandered any credibility it had long ago, so the public has no reason to trust the TSA on this issue.
• Privacy: One of TSA’s many lies about these machines was that they were incapable of storing or transmitting images. This was proven to be false. If we can’t trust TSA to tell us the truth about these machines, why would we trust them to protect graphic, private images from the scans?
Media momentum and public perception have been turning against the TSA for some time now. Keep opting out and holding TSA to account every time you fly. Report bad behavior, and continue putting pressure on your elected representatives to end the TSA’s reign of terror in our airports.