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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