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Commentary

The Pretense of Airport Security


     
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College student Nathaniel Heatwole’s recent, highly publicized hijinks in deliberately and successfully flouting airline-security rules illustrate once more the realities of the government’s sham program to protect the commercial airline industry from terrorists.

The Transportation Security Administration is a joke, and not a funny one, either. As you pass through the TSA’s airport checkpoints, you can expect to overhear mutters about the “gestapo,” the “morons,” and similar commentary from outraged but powerless travelers who have chosen to swallow their self-respect and submit to pointless, degrading invasions of their persons and property in order to avoid offending the thugs who, whenever they choose, can prevent passengers from proceeding with their travel. Something is horribly wrong with a population willing to tolerate such routine degradation and thuggery, especially when the alleged benefits of the humiliation are entirely bogus.

Deputy TSA Administrator Stephen McHale, behaving as a bureaucrat is bound to behave, dismissed the significance of the Heatwole incident. “Amateur testing of our systems do [sic] not show us in any way our flaws,” he said. “We know where the vulnerabilities are and we are testing them.... This does not help.”

Well, yes, it does not help to improve a bureaucrat’s day when a college student carries out with such ease multiple evasions of forbidden-item interdiction, immediately alerts the authorities to every detail of his actions, then has to wait a month for an official reaction. McHale’s dismissal notwithstanding, this incident does highlight flaws that have been disclosed repeatedly by others, including agents of the Transportation Department’s inspector general, ever since the feds rushed to nationalize airport security screening in the wake of 9/11.

Back then, when President Bush signed the takeover bill into law on November 19, 2001, he declared: “Safety comes first. And when it comes to safety, we will set high standards and enforce them.” The president was just blowing political hot air. Everybody knows that services are almost always performed worse by government employees than by private employees. Airport security screening has been no exception, as the government’s own inspectors have shown again and again. A TSA survey of thirty-two major airports, reported in July 2002, for example, “found that fake guns, bombs, and other weapons got past security screeners almost one-fourth of the time.”

Do not suppose, however, that the TSA has served no purpose. Primarily, it has served to give the public the impression that the government is “doing something” about airline security. The government is doing a great deal, to be sure; it’s just not doing anything that contributes to genuine security. Anyone who spends half an hour thinking about how to commandeer or blow up an airplane can easily come up with a workable plan. Do we really suppose that the people smart enough to have pulled off the coordinated hijackings and attacks of 9/11 are too stupid to beat the present system?

The TSA has also served to bulk up the government payroll and, in the process, the ranks of rock-solid Democratic voters. Count this payoff to Democrats as one of the many that President Bush has been willing to make to secure Democratic votes in Congress for measures he himself ranks highly, such as running up the Pentagon’s budget and attacking Iraq. Late in 2001, the airline screening industry employed some 28,000 workers. President Bush’s request for fiscal year 2004 calls for the TSA to employ 59,000, at a cost of $4.812 billion. That sum works out to $81,560 per employee. Does anyone really believe we’re getting our money’s worth?

Of course, we have to take into account that not all the money goes for payroll. Indeed, much of the spending ends up in the pockets of private contractors—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Oracle, Unisys, InVision Technologies, and others—who have found the provision of hardware, software, training, and other services to be a godsend. Along the way, the TSA has approved at least eighty contracts worth some $54 million without normal competitive bidding. Obviously, the good-old-boy fraternity so familiar in Pentagon contracting—officially described here as “firms that TSA officials identified as having expertise in the areas needed”—has had no trouble entering the TSA’s vault and walking out with cash.

Like any federal bureaucracy, the TSA has spawned its share of scandals. A widely reported one involved its booking of the Wyndham Peaks Resort and Golden Door Spa near Telluride, Colorado, to conduct recruiting interviews. Twenty TSA recruiters stayed seven weeks at this plush resort to fill fifty screener jobs. While there, they also shelled out $29,000 of the taxpayers’ money to the local police department for extra security. Another scandal involved some $400,000 spent to redecorate in appropriate bureaucratic splendor the office of then-chief John Magaw (who was later fired).

When the feds were gearing up to take over the screening industry, proponents of this harebrained idea emphasized the advantages of switching from ill-trained, low-paid private employees to better-trained, higher-paid federal employees, all subjected to proper background checks. In June 2003, however, “the TSA acknowledged firing more than 1,200 airport screeners—roughly 2 percent of its screener work force—for providing false information on job applications, failing drug tests or having criminal records.” Recently a flap broke out when it came to light that TSA employees taking certification tests had been given the exact questions and answers in advance. Evidently, these crack federal employees, who were supposed to be such tremendous improvements (though the TSA had quickly waived its initial high-school-graduation requirement), needed a slight edge to demonstrate their superiority.

TSA head Admiral James Loy affirms that although he has ordered a “full investigation,” he retains “full confidence” in the agency’s 56,000 screeners. Evidently Admiral Loy does not fly commercial. If he had seen what the rest of us see each time we encounter this overpaid-at-any-price corps of petty tyrants, he would know better.

In what may rank as the greatest public understatement of recent times, Oregon congressman Peter DeFazio observed about the TSA screening program, “I have extraordinary concerns that we are doing something that lacks common sense.” The congressman should know as well as anyone, however, that although it may lack common sense, it expresses plenty of political sense—in fact, nothing but political sense, with the usual full measure of pandering to an ignorant electorate and doling out loot to political cronies.

In its screening program, the TSA also complies fully with political correctness, preferring to strip-search grandma and to hassle young mothers laden with infants and their paraphernalia rather than to commit the unforgivable sin—namely, “profiling” the sort of people, the only known sort, who conceivably might be planning to hijack or blow up an airplane. Simultaneously, in further compliance with political correctness, the TSA has done everything in its power to cripple the program that Congress forced on it to train pilots to carry guns in the cockpit—one of the few measures that actually packs some anti-terrorist punch, and a cheap, sensible one at that.

Ultimately, however, the TSA’s program serves one political purpose above all others. It routinely abases and humiliates the entire population, rendering us docile and compliant and thereby preparing us to play our assigned role in the Police State that the Bush administration has been building relentlessly. For Attorney General Ashcroft, the federal prosecutors, and the thousands of bully-boys at the FBI, the BATF, and all the other, similar bureaus, nothing could be finer than a system whereby the entire population without exception is treated as suspected criminals and made to feel like inmates in a concentration camp.


Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications


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CRISIS AND LEVIATHAN (25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION): Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government
The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups.






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