STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
The TSA and Security Theater: Understanding American Airport Security Following 9/11
By Sam Jacobs - November 04, 2019
Following the attacks of September 11th, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), creating the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). The TSA replaced private security screening companies with one government agency. Since then, air travelers have bowed to pat downs, bans on water bottles and other inconvenient, intrusive procedures as the “new normal” at our nation’s airports. But does any of this make us safer?
Security Theater and the TSA
Security expert Bruce Schneier coined the term “security theater” to describe some of the TSA’s procedures and screening practices. Security theater provides the appearance of enhanced security without actually making anyone more secure.
Since 9/11, the TSA has implemented new screening procedures on an almost constant basis. The structural problem with these new screening procedures is two-fold. First, these procedures are almost always in response to past threats, not in anticipation of future threats. Second, average Americans suffer the consequences for years to come in the form of ever-increasing screening procedures and lost time.
Sadly, the TSA’s accumulated procedures and screening practices are actually causing more American deaths. Cornell University researchers found decreased air travel after 9/11 led to an extra 242 road fatalities per month. In all, the researchers estimate that 1,200 people died as a result of decreased air travel. In 2007, the Cornell researchers studied TSA screening procedures implemented in 2002, and found that they decreased air travel by 6% – leading to an additional 129 road fatalities in the last three months of 2002. In terms of casualties, that’s the same as blowing up a fully loaded Boeing 737.
The TSA’s Security Theater Timeline
There have been significant and numerous changes in the TSA’s security theater since 9/11. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights:
- September 12, 2001: During the months after 9/11, National Guard troops are posted at the nation’s airports. Their guns are empty.
- November 19, 2001: President Bush signs the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), replacing private security screening with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
- November 22, 2001: British national Richard Reid tries to blow up a Paris-Miami flight using explosives hidden in his shoes. The TSA institutes a random shoe-screening policy.
- April 2002: The TSA deploys 6,000 explosive trace detection machines, or “puffers,” at all American airports. Fewer than 100 machines are deployed and the plan is scrapped. The total cost of the project is more than $30 million.
- September 2004: The TSA orders all jackets and belts removed and X-rayed. Visitors banned from gate area.
- March 31, 2005: TSA adds all lighters to its list of prohibited items.
- December 2005: In response to the Madrid train bombings the year before, the TSA starts the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) program to secure America’s transportation infrastructure beyond airports.
- August 10, 2006: All passengers now required to remove shoes during security screening.
- August 10, 2006: In response to a foiled plot using liquid explosives in Britain, the TSA adds all liquids, gels and aerosols to its list of prohibited items.
- September 2006: The TSA implements its 3-1-1 Rule, allowing liquids in 3-ounce containers that fit in a single 1-quart plastic bag.
- 2007: The TSA repeals the lighter ban and the agency’s chief Kip Hawley says that taking lighters away is “security theater.”
- October 2007: In response to intelligence about remote-detonated explosives, the TSA starts training screeners to carry out additional screening of remote control toys.
- Christmas Day, 2009: Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tries to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit using explosives concealed in his underwear. The TSA orders mandatory full-body scans for all passengers. Passengers who refuse to be scanned will receive a physical pat-down search instead.
- Early 2010: The TSA starts introducing full-body scanners that use backscatter radiation to produce effectively nude images of passengers. By the end of the year, more than 500 scanners are operational.
- August 2010: The TSA achieves its goal of screening 100% of all checked baggage and cargo on board domestic flights.
- October 2010: Saudi intelligence discovers a plot to blow up aircraft with explosives hidden in printer cartridges. The TSA bans all printer cartridges from carry-on luggage.
- November 16, 2010: Hundreds of body scan images are leaked to the press. The leak causes a wave of demands to ban the fully-body scanners. In response to public outcry, Congress orders the TSA to purchase machines that generate a more generic picture of passengers’ bodies.
- November 17, 2010: The TSA institutes new “enhanced” pat-down procedures that allow screeners to touch passengers’ inner thighs, groins, buttocks and breasts – areas previously off limits.
- End of 2011: Every U.S. airport has at least one full-body scanner.
- March 2012: Shoe removal rules are relaxed to allow passengers younger than 12 and older than 75 to keep their shoes on during screening.
- July 6, 2014: The TSA bans powerless devices on direct flights to the United States from certain overseas airports. Smartphones, laptops and any device with dead batteries “will not be permitted onboard aircraft.”
- October 2018: The TSA lays out plans to use facial recognition software for domestic flights. And they order travelers to pay $1.4 million in civil penalties for bringing guns to airports.
Nowadays, the TSA runs background checks on all travelers before they even arrive at the airport. Using the Department of Homeland Security’s Automated Targeting System, a massive database that employs algorithms to identify potential terrorists, the TSA automatically places thousands of travelers on the so-called selectee list, which earns them an “SSSS” stamp on their boarding pass and extra screening every time they fly. For travelers who want to avoid extra screening, there’s the TSA’s PreCheck program, which lets passengers keep their shoes, belts and jackets on and skip lengthy lines in exchange for a background check, fingerprinting and a fee.
The TSA’s 95% Failure Rate in Rehearsals
Although security procedures have gotten more aggressive under the TSA, detection rates seem no better than they were before September 11, 2001. An undercover investigation by the DHS in 2018, found that the TSA had equipment or procedure failure more than half the time.
Numbers don’t lie. The TSA’s failure rate at weapon detection remains strong, which is likely 80% at some major airports. And during undercover tests, that failure rate increases. During covert tests conducted by the DHS in 2015, TSA agents failed to detect guns and fake explosives 95 percent of the time. In one test, an undercover DHS agent was stopped and received an “enhanced” pat-down search after setting off a metal detector, but the TSA screener failed to detect the fake bomb taped to the agent’s back.
The U.S. hasn’t suffered any major attacks since 9/11. However, incidents like shoe bomber Richard Reid weren’t thwarted by the TSA – they were stopped by watchful passengers.
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