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Monday 15 August 2005

TSA Security Changes

The Washington Post reports that changes are being considered by the TSA, specifically that they are considering loosening their search and seizure (i.e. ‘screening’) procedures to be more ‘customer-friendly’.

We will leave aside for the moment the murky of issue of just who TSA’s ‘customers’ are. Airline passengers are the ultimate consumers of their services, but we can hardly be said to be their ‘customers’.

Anyway. This may surprise regular readers, who might be forgiven for thinking that I find everything annoying and everyone incompetent, but I have generally found the TSA to be much more pleasant to deal with than the rent-a-cop firms that previously screened airline passengers. The only real problem I have with the TSA is their inconsistency, particularly from airport to airport. Some places, you have to take off your shoes and will get yelled at if you do not figure this out on your own and do it; other places, you get yelled at if you start taking off your shoes. Whatever. At least the shoe thing makes some sense: someone did actually try to blow up a plane using a bomb concealed in his shoe.

The ban on small knives is harder to understand. Some accounts hold that the September 11 hijackers used knives variously described as ‘box cutters’ or ‘Stanley knives’ (not precisely the same things) to overpower the airplanes’ crews and take control. Okay, fine: let’s assume that this is true. Does anyone actually think that this would work a second time? I don’t. A few people might get hurt before the knife-wielding hijackers were subdued by passengers and crew, but that’s about it.

So I think it’s great that they’re thinking about getting rid of this silly restriction. I’m tired of having to stow my little three-inch-long pocket knife in my checked baggage.

But other things they’re considering seem, well, a bit silly to me. The Post reports:

The proposal also would allow ice picks, throwing stars and bows and arrows on flights. Allowing those items was suggested after a risk evaluation was conducted about which items posed the most danger.

A ‘throwing star’ is really nothing other than a kind of knife that’s optimized for throwing. In the confines of an airplane, it’s not likely to be too dangerous: so I suppose I can see allowing these. Still, how many people carry throwing stars around with them, as compared to pocketknives?

But the other two items, ice picks and bows and arrows, leave me scratching my head. Who the hell carries ice picks with them? And why would they possibly need one on an airplane? We don’t allow guns on airplanes, because we have decided (for better or for worse) that airplanes should be weapon-free zones. Knives can be weapons, but aren’t always: I’m not sure that the same is true of icepicks.

And who needs to take a bow and arrows into the cabin of an airplane? Competition bows are expensive, delicate, and fairly large things: I’m sure there are complicated and expensive containers for them, and that any serious archers on the way to a big meet (or a run-in with the Sheriff of Nottingham) send them as checked luggage. It seems like it would be a good idea to ban archery equipment from the cabin just to speed the loading and unloading of the plane.


The TSA memo proposes to minimize the number of passengers who must be patted down at checkpoints. It also recommends that certain categories of passengers be exempt from airport security screening, such as members of Congress, airline pilots, Cabinet members, state governors, federal judges, high-ranking military officers and people with top-secret security clearances.

All of which sounds fine: members of Congress have so much opportunity to do harm to society on a daily basis from the comfort of their offices that we don’t need to worry about them blowing up airplanes: ditto governors, cabinet members, judges, etc., and it’s better to expend the screening resources on others — though I don’t think that anyone who has to run for election would ever want to be known to be excused from screening.

Nevertheless, this is an idiotic idea. First, you’ve got the problem of identifying all these people. It would be impossible: you’d have to create some kind of ID card that’s difficult to forge, but that by its very nature would be uncommon. With only about ten thousand of these in circulation, the chances that a given screener would have ever seen one before (and thus be in a position to positively identify a forgery) would be miniscule.

Second, how and where do you draw the line between people who do and do not have to be screened? High-ranking military officers would be excluded? What about Our Brave Boys And Girls who are laying it on the line in Iraq? Don’t we trust them? What about all those hard-working SEIU and AFCME members who don’t have top-secret clearances? Why should they have to submit to the indignity of screening, just like a lowly citizen?

Excluding anyone from screening would be a mistake. You’re creating an opportunity for fraud, and you will wind up with a situation where more and more groups are arguing to be excluded from screening.

Yet more:

The proposal also would give screeners discretion in determining whether to pat down passengers. For example, screeners would not have to pat down “those persons whose outermost garments closely conform to the natural contour of the body.”

Well, Nicole could avoid being screened then, at least. But discretion? Discretion is the last thing you want in this situation. Not only are you then putting your screening policies into the hands of the people at the lowest level of your organization, but you’re opening yourself up to lawsuits. What do you think the chances are that TSA screeners would exercise their ‘discretion’ to let an Arab-looking guy through, eh?

This is worse than security theatre: this is security community theatre,

Posted by tino at 12:19 15.08.05
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I think the thinking behind allowing those with TS clearances to pass through is that like the Secured Flight initiative they have already undergone backgrounds checks and have been found (in the esteemed opinion of our security agencies) to be trustworthy.

The problem I see wirth this is generally when you have such a clearance you are not supposed to openly advertise this.

I also think creating a class of individuals who are not subject to screening is a bad idea. I mean if you exempt Sen. Kenedey you will never get that nice story about him being detained becuase someone was using his name as an alias. Just the poor common folks will get caught up in this idiocy.

Personally I’m all for the ban on small knives being lifted. For most trips I don’t check bags so this means I have to leave my beloved (and frequently used) leatherman at home.

Posted by: Paul at August 15, 2005 01:08 PM

I’d like to be able to carry my swiss army knife and a lighter.

Unfortunately, I don’t see lighters on this list. You can point out that Richard Reid had one, but he also had a bomb in his shoe so, the lighter was really the least of the problems there.

Posted by: Nicole at August 15, 2005 10:44 PM

I too would like to be able to carry my friggin’ Swiss Army knife.

I think the reason people want to carry-on a bow is the same reason I absolutely would never not carry-on my laptop: it’s a delicate and highly expensive item. Not something you want either stolen or drop-kicked by an airplane baggage handler.

Posted by: Erich Schwarz at August 16, 2005 10:43 PM