Stop Screening

by Russ Roberts on October 18, 2007

in Terrorism

The data are in:

Security screeners at two of the nation’s
busiest airports failed to find fake bombs hidden on undercover agents
posing as passengers in more than 60% of tests last year, according to
a classified report obtained by USA TODAY.

Screeners at Los Angeles International Airport
missed about 75% of simulated explosives and bomb parts that
Transportation Security Administration testers hid under their clothes
or in carry-on bags at checkpoints, the TSA report shows.

I’m not really thrilled that this info is going public, but I suspect would-be terrorists already know this. The bottom line–we are spending millions of dollars worth of travel time and TSA employee time for nothing. It’s a sham. Instead of having incredibly expensive machines to x-ray our luggage and incredibly expensive people standing around and pawing my underwear and incredibly expensive lost time from waiting in line and instead of losing all the foregone benefits from travel that doesn’t take place because the TSA has made it so unpleasant, let’s just say a magic spell or put on a lucky shirt when we travel. True, it won’t really make us safer, but NEITHER DOES THE CURRENT SYSTEM.

But there is a bright spot, sort of:

San Francisco International Airport screeners, who work for a private
company instead of the TSA, missed about 20% of the bombs, the report

So they’re roughly three times more conscientious about their job than the government employees, confirming the virtues of privatization, yes. But 20%? For me, even that "low" number makes the costs unlikely to exceed the benefits.

UPDATE: The first part of the story makes it seem like testers were able to smuggle bombs onto planes. But when you read a little farther (which I neglected to do initially) it’s hard to tell whether they are missing actually bombs or things that can be assembled into bombs on the plane:

In the past year, the TSA has adopted a more
aggressive approach in its attempt to keep screeners attentive — the
agency runs covert tests every day at every U.S. airport, TSA
spokeswoman Ellen Howe said. Screeners who miss detonators, timers,
batteries and blocks that resemble plastic explosives get remedial

The failure rates at Los Angeles and Chicago are
"somewhat misleading" because they don’t reflect screeners’ improved
ability to find bombs, Howe said.

TSA chief Kip Hawley, responding to previous
reports about screeners missing hidden weapons, told a House hearing
Tuesday that high failure rates stem from increasingly difficult covert
tests that require screeners to find bomb parts the size of a pen cap.
"We moved from testing of completely assembled bombs … to the small
component parts," he said.

Terrorists bringing a homemade bomb on an
airplane, or bringing on bomb parts and assembling them in the cabin,
is the top threat against aviation. "Their focus is on using items
easily available off grocery and hardware store shelves," Hawley said.

I can’t tell from this wording if the tests that USA Today is reporting on are people missing the "pen cap" sized parts or something more obvious.

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Sam Grove October 18, 2007 at 10:55 am

Government I all about gesturing.
The image of competence is what matters when reality is obscured by the pretty words of politicians.

dave smith October 18, 2007 at 11:02 am

I wonder if it would be both better and cheaper for the TSA to have plain clothed officers who are trained to observe human behavior wondering around airports screening those acting strangely?

CJ October 18, 2007 at 11:41 am

Couldn't agree more…what's the point of it if it's not working? It's just an illusion for people too stupid to know any better…actually, I guess I just answered my own question. Why hasn't it occurred to people that if I have to remove my tennis shoes and send them through the xray machine, then, really, our security system isn't actually useful? What exactly is it that I could hide IN a sneaker that I couldn't hide in my pocket or otherwise under my clothing?

Bret October 18, 2007 at 11:42 am

True, it [screening] won't really make us safer, but NEITHER DOES THE CURRENT SYSTEM."

If 25% of bombs are detected, wouldn't that make us at least a little bit (25%) safer?

Brent Buckner October 18, 2007 at 12:11 pm

Shouldn't that be twice not thrice as conscientious or effective (success in detection rate of 80% versus success in detection rate of 40%)?

G October 18, 2007 at 12:46 pm

Is anyone surprised? I understand government should have some hand in aircraft safety, since the darn airplanes do hit things when they fall out of the sky. But I don't understand how the government taking control of security is justified, when they could just hold the airlines accountable for their mistakes. Imagine how smoothly everything would go if each airline competed for the fastest and easiest safety procedures.

anomdebus October 18, 2007 at 3:50 pm

Even a modest detection rate should discourage incidents and particularly the multiple target incidents AQ has grown a liking to.
They could probably do a better job overall, though.

ben October 18, 2007 at 4:14 pm

75% failure for government employees vs. 20% failure for employees of private firms. That is an extraordinary difference. I know a variety of mechanisms tell us why government is a relatively poor producer of services in many contexts, but do any of them, even combined, explain such a massive difference in productivity?

Joey Panto October 18, 2007 at 4:47 pm

Good ol' competition. Most govt services are still provided by captive employees who face no competition, managed by a bureaucracy that has no incentive to internally innovate to maximize service value. Outsourcing competitively is the only way to energize the innovation in people to minimize failure rates in weapon detection.

I'm going to record a rant about this one tonight at 9pm PST on an open conference line (712) 432 3900, access code 9732125. All on this thread are invited to rant for a minute or two. To guarantee rant time, RSVP me at These are pilot recordings for an eventual animated tech policy blog.


"Terror, Death, Destruction,
Pour from the Eastern sands,
But the truth of all predictions,
Is always in your hands."

- Iron Maiden "Die with your Boots On"

jdj October 18, 2007 at 7:10 pm

Given the topic, you may enjoy this pardoy:

It's really not Spam.

anonymous October 21, 2007 at 12:19 am

After a recent international airplane trip, I was cleaning out my carry-on bag and realized that I forgot to remove my Leatherman knife, which apparently made it through both US and Foreign security without detection.

However on my next flight, they confiscated my 1" long glasses screwdriver though.

Russell Nelson October 21, 2007 at 2:04 am

No one will ever again be able to hijack an airplane carrying American passengers. Why? Because everybody knows that it's worth their life to mash the hijacker into a pulp. If a crowd is intent upon killing someone, no hand weapon will save that person. Consequently, disarming passengers is exactly the WRONG thing to do.

Pablo October 22, 2007 at 2:02 am

The day will come when carry-on items will be banned completely.

You'll have to strip and walk onto the plane with nothing but your TSA-issued gown.

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