Anybody who thinks the new directives issued by the Transportation Security Administration are going to protect them from terrorists needs to read this article from The Atlantic, published back in November, 2008. In it, the author Jeffrey Goldberg, describes how he and well-known security expert Bruce Schneier engaged in all sorts of behavior that could've caused serious problems had they actually been terrorists. Like printing out fake boarding passes. And carrying pocketknives, cigarette lighters, bottled water, boxcutters (oh no!), and more in their carry-on luggage. Goldberg explains that out of dozens of trips through airports across the U.S., he was only selected for secondary screening four times.
And that's when they nailed him. Not! Here's how he describes on of the incidents:
During one secondary inspection, at Oâ€™Hare International Airport in Chicago, I was wearing under my shirt a ...device called a â€œBeerbelly,â€ a neoprene sling that holds a polyurethane bladder and drinking tube. The Beerbelly, designed originally to sneak alcoholâ€”up to 80 ouncesâ€”into football games, can quite obviously be used to sneak up to 80 ounces of liquid through airport security....My Beerbelly, which fit comfortably over my beer belly, contained two cansâ€™ worth of Bud Light at the time of the inspection. It went undetected. The eight-ounce bottle of water in my carry-on bag, however, was seized by the federal government.
In the wake of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 (and successful attempt at setting his genitalia on fire), the TSA has announced travellers can expect "increased gate screening including pat-downs and bag searches". A few months ago, Deirdre Walker (a recently-retired Assistant Chief of Police in Montgomery County, Maryland with 24 years of experience as a cop) had this to say about the effectiveness of a TSA "pat-down":
What happened to me in Albany was not the promised â€œpat-down.â€ It was a full search conducted in full public view. It was also one of the most flawed searches I have ever witnessed. From the outset, it was very clear that the screener would have preferred to be anywhere else....With rubber-gloved hands she checked my head, my arms, my legs, my buttocks...and even the bottom of my feet. Perhaps in a nod to decorum, she did not check my crotch, my armpits or either breast area.
Here was a big problem: an effective search cannot nod to decorum.
These three areas on a woman, and the crotch area of men, offer the greatest opportunity to seclude weapons and contraband. Bad guys and girls rely on the type of reluctance displayed by this screener to get weapons and drugs past the authorities....I am also forced to conclude that the purpose of the â€œpat-downâ€ was not to actually interdict contraband. In my case, I believe I was subjected to a haphazard response in order to effectively punish me for refusing secondary screening and to encourage a different decision in the future.
I highly recommend Deirdre's entire post at Homeland Security Watch. Especially if you've ever wondered what might happen if, after being selected for secondary screening by TSA staff, you ask "Do I have the right to refuse this search?" I also recommend reading this article about what the TSA did when they found more than $4700 in cash in Steve Bierfeldt's carry-on bag, and he dared ask "Am I legally required to answer that question?" when they asked him why he had the cash. (I'll give you a hint -- ACLU!)
But back to that Atlantic article. The part about the fake boarding passes is pretty mind-blowing (it's part of a fairly simple tactic that would easily allow terrorists to bypass the no-fly lists entirely). But I think the part when Schneier goes through security with a container labeled "saline solution" is even more interesting, given the recent incident with the "crotch bomb":
We took our shoes off and placed our laptops in bins. Schneier took from his bag a 12-ounce container labeled â€œsaline solution.â€
â€œItâ€™s allowed,â€ he said. Medical supplies, such as saline solution for contact-lens cleaning, donâ€™t fall under the TSAâ€™s three-ounce rule.
â€œWhatâ€™s allowed?â€ I asked. â€œSaline solution, or bottles labeled saline solution?â€
â€œBottles labeled saline solution. They wonâ€™t check whatâ€™s in it, trust me.â€
They did not check. As we gathered our belongings, Schneier held up the bottle and said to the nearest security officer, â€œThis is okay, right?â€
â€œYep,â€ the officer said. â€œJust have to put it in the tray.â€
â€œMaybe if you lit it on fire, heâ€™d pay attention,â€ I said, risking arrest for making a joke at airport security. (Later, Schneier would carry two bottles labeled saline solutionâ€”24 ounces in totalâ€”through security. An officer asked him why he needed two bottles. â€œTwo eyes,â€ he said. He was allowed to keep the bottles.)
Our tax dollars at work.
What does it all mean? Well, I think it means that, as Schneier points out, the system is designed primarily to make people feel safer, even if they're not. And to possibly catch a few stupid terrorists who don't really know what they're doing. Which means that all the hassle (and in some cases, harassment, intimidation and abuse) we put up with at airports is generally a complete waste of time and money. And if that scares the absolute bejeezus out of you, then maybe you'll be conforted by fellow Gatherer Helen Shaw's article pointing out that you're far more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack on a plane.
My vote is to take airport security back to the way it was on Sept. 10, 2001 and put more emphasis on catching terrorists before they get to the airport.