Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 20, 2006

Airport security, libertarian style

Filed under: Aviation Security,Risk Assessment — by Christian Beckner on January 20, 2006

The libertarian Reason Foundation released a report by Robert W. Poole, Jr. this month entitled “Airport Security: Time for a New Model,” noted in an article today in CQ. The report includes some sensible analysis related to workflow modeling and resource allocation within and across airports. But its arguments about screener workforce privatization are puzzling, and its suggestion to weaken the requirements for checked baggage EDS screening is deeply irresponsible.

The report begins by arguing that there are three flaws in the current TSA model:

First, the law presumes that all air travelers are equally likely to be a threat, and mandates equal attention (and spending) on each—which is very wasteful of scarce security resources.

I agree with this point, as I’ve noted previously in several posts filed under aviation security.

Second, the TSA operates in a highly centralized manner, which is poorly matched to the wide variation in sizes and types of passenger airports.

Really? I’m not sure on this one. That statement clashes with most of the stories that I’ve heard in the last few years about Federal Security Directors building their own local fiefdoms with little central oversight.

And third, the law puts the TSA in the conflicting position of being both the airport security policymaker/regulator and the provider of some (but not all) airport security services.

True perhaps, but hardly unique to the TSA. There are many, many government entities that have both an operational and a regulatory role. For example, the State Dept sets US foreign policy AND runs embassies! And DOD sets defense policy AND fights wars!

The report then uses these “flaws” and an homage to Chertoff’s risk-based approach to propose the following three recommendations:

  1. Phase the TSA out of performing airport screening services, and focus it on a policymaking and regulatory role.
  2. Devolve screening functions to each individual airport, under TSA oversight.
  3. Redesign screening and other airport security functions along risk-based lines, to better target resources on dangerous people rather than dangerous objects.

On recommendations #1 and #2: this isn’t the first time I’ve heard these type of recommendations in the last three years, but it still surprises me when I hear them. People sure have short memories. This paragraph from Chapter 1 of the 9/11 Commssion Report, with reference to the screening on 9/11 of two of the hijackers, says it all:

When the local civil aviation security office of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) later investigated these security screening operations, the screeners recalled nothing out of the ordinary. They could not recall that any of the passengers they screened were CAPPS selectees. We asked a screening expert to review the videotape of the hand-wanding, and he found the quality of the screener’s work to have been “marginal at best.” The screener should have “resolved” what set off the alarm; and in the case of both Moqed and Hazmi, it was clear that he did not.

TSA screening is far perfect, and operations should be optimized in some of the ways suggested in this report – but today’s TSA is certainly an improvement on this earlier era of laxity. I wouldn’t rule out a shift toward privatization in the long-term (15-20 years) if the terror threat recedes, but I don’t think we’re ready yet as a country to give this responsibility back to the private sector.

But while this idea is worth keeping on the back burner, a final recommendation in the Reason Foundation report is downright dangerous:

Low-risk travelers would be those who qualify for Registered Traveler status. They would get expedited checkpoint processing and their bags could usually bypass EDS screening.

Um, sorry, no. Registered traveler programs should be for passenger checkpoint screening: not for the screening of checked bags. 100% of checked bags should be screened for explosives (by EDS machines or manually), now and forever. This is one area where, if you take a close look at the threat scenarios, a risk-based screening approach does not apply, because the consequences of failure from a one-in-a-thousand or one-in-a-million “failure to screen” mistake are so great (e.g. Pan Am 103). This kind of loophole in the system would be a vulnerability that terrorists would almost certainly try to exploit – and we should not give them that chance.

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Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Blog Archive » Airport security, libertarian style

January 20, 2006 @ 3:34 am

[…] Aviation Security […]

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Aviation security: dangerous libertarian ideas

August 15, 2006 @ 4:32 pm

[…] Back in January I reviewed a report from the Reason Foundation entitled “Airport Security: Time for a New Model” by Robert Poole, Jr. While the report had some decent ideas in it, I argued at the time that two of the report’s major ideas – privatizing the TSA workforce and moving away from 100% screening of checked baggage – were flawed and irresponsible. […]

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