Huffpost Politics
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Fred Gevalt Headshot

Airport Security and TSA -- Isn't it Time For Us to Grow Up?

Posted: Updated:

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Were Lord Acton alive today, he could easily be speaking of the Transportation Security Administration, the federal super agency that inspects, bullies, and delays us every time we want to fly. As a growing agency, preoccupied with power and empire building, its screeners (disingenuously labeled "officers") strut around America's airports, and now also appear with air marshals at train, subway and bus terminals occasionally, as "VIPR" teams, a warm and fuzzy acronym for "Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response." Got it?

At a financial cost (depending on your sources) from 10 to 40 times pre-9/11 airport security, this agency has pilfered at least the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendment rights from all US travelers. It has imposed indirect costs on the frequent flyer ranging from $15 to $30 billion per year in squandered business opportunity. And while its existence has reduced airlinesʼ responsibility and security liability, TSA has also cost the carriers a bundle in delays and inconvenience. It's enough to make a grown man weep, (or at least in my case produce a feature length movie about it entitled Please Remove Your Shoes)

As some of our interviewees in that project have said: "We would like to hope that this is all doing some good." Unfortunately, it isn't. And why did we need the Christmas bomber to make this so painfully obvious? Has America grown so incapable of independent thought that even briefly it was a plausible PR tactic for the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to tell us that "the system worked?" Are we really that stupid?

Here's one problem: the system, as Ms. Napolitano put it, is essentially the same plan that we had before 9/11, but with enough new bells and whistles to distract us. At an annual expense of $7 billion, the "system" is presided over by a lot of the same people from FAA that fell down on the job before 9/11. The current airport follies consists of a 58,000 person cast in a multi-act play called "Deterrence Part II."

But a scarecrow is deterrence -- a passive dummy that sits in the cornfield to hopefully frighten the birds. And all TSAʼs explosive trace detection machines, bomb puffers, and recent body scanners are essentially props -- hatbands, shoes, and overalls for the aviation scarecrow.

As seen in Please Remove Your Shoes, most of TSAʼs technology has languished in warehouses, broken down at airports, or exhibited such appalling failure rates that it could have been better acquired as empty black boxes. It doesn't have to work. It just has to look like it might work. But TSA can't just say that in their RFP, even though that approach would have saved billions. They do, however, regularly promote via press release where all this eyewash has recently been installed. If they were serious about catching someone, of course, they'd keep their mouths shut.

TSA needs to screen your grandmother at the airport. It needs to frisk your six- year-old. They are unwilling participants in a theatrical production for the benefit of any "bad guys" that might be watching, but whom TSA is absolutely unqualified to identify or catch before they do us harm. The VIPR team acronym begins with "visible" as opposed to "effective," precisely because for TSA, public visibility and perception are end goals in and of themselves.

Security theater might have been a valid concept for the months after 9/11, as the Bush Administration struggled to get people back into the air. (Remember the national guardsmen without bullets in their guns?) But someone forgot to change gears. Today it is painfully apparent that we can no longer afford a straw man without a brain (the Obama Administration has yet to find an administrator for this behemoth, despite two failed attempts that stalled in the Senate.)

Enough. America deserves better, unless of course it doesn't speak up. We shuffle in cowed silence like passive zombies through the airport security lines, but that doesn't mean we have to do the same thing once we are within reach of a phone or a computer. Grow up, America, you've been had. This emperor isn't just without clothes. He's a malicious streaker, and he's running around town with the shirts off your backs!