Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 3, 2012

Defending the TSA?!?

Filed under: Aviation Security,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on January 3, 2012

I feel somewhat uncomfortable defending the actions of a group that seemingly brings so much discomfort to so many, but a recent Vanity Fair article on airport security not only regurgitates the obvious and well known, but lacks little strategic point of view.  First, the well-known:

Not only has the actual threat from terror been exaggerated, they say, but the great bulk of the post-9/11 measures to contain it are little more than what Schneier mocks as “security theater”: actions that accomplish nothing but are designed to make the government look like it is on the job. In fact, the continuing expenditure on security may actually have made the United States less safe.

From an airplane-hijacking point of view, Schneier said, al-Qaeda had used up its luck. Passengers on the first three 9/11 flights didn’t resist their captors, because in the past the typical consequence of a plane seizure had been “a week in Havana.” When the people on the fourth hijacked plane learned by cell phone that the previous flights had been turned into airborne bombs, they attacked their attackers. The hijackers were forced to crash Flight 93 into a field. “No big plane will ever be taken that way again, because the passengers will fight back,” Schneier said.

Buried within the article is, in my opinion anyway, a very nice articulation of the problem of looking at the issue of terrorism risk simply by crunching the numbers:

Has the nation simply wasted a trillion dollars protecting itself against terror? Mostly, but perhaps not entirely. “Most of the time we assess risk through gut feelings,” says Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who is also the president of Decision Research, a nonprofit R&D organization. “We’re not robots just looking at the numbers.” Confronted with a risk, people ask questions: Is this a risk that I benefit from taking, as when I get in a car? Is it forced on me by someone else, as when I am exposed to radiation? Are the potential consequences catastrophic? Is the impact immediate and observable, or will I not know the consequences until much later, as with cancer? Such questions, Slovic says, “reflect values that are sometimes left out of the experts’ calculations.”

Security theater, from this perspective, is an attempt to convey a message: “We are doing everything possible to protect you.” When 9/11 shattered the public’s confidence in flying, Slovic says, the handful of anti-terror measures that actually work—hardening the cockpit door, positive baggage matching, more-effective intelligence—would not have addressed the public’s dread, because the measures can’t really be seen. Relying on them would have been the equivalent of saying, “Have confidence in Uncle Sam,” when the problem was the very loss of confidence. So a certain amount of theater made sense. Over time, though, the value of the message changes. At first the policeman in the train station reassures you. Later, the uniform sends a message: train travel is dangerous. “The show gets less effective, and sometimes it becomes counterproductive.”

Eventually, Bruce Schneier overreaches and follows his generally reasonable assertions with analysis that only serves to buttress his own arguments while ignoring a bit of reality:

Terrorists will try to hit the United States again, Schneier says. One has to assume this. Terrorists can so easily switch from target to target and weapon to weapon that focusing on preventing any one type of attack is foolish. Even if the T.S.A. were somehow to make airports impregnable, this would simply divert terrorists to other, less heavily defended targets—shopping malls, movie theaters, churches, stadiums, museums. The terrorist’s goal isn’t to attack an airplane specifically; it’s to sow terror generally. “You spend billions of dollars on the airports and force the terrorists to spend an extra $30 on gas to drive to a hotel or casino and attack it,” Schneier says. “Congratulations!”

This simplifies the issue in ways that are counterproductive.  Two points:

1. Air travel remains an attractive target due to the cost benefit ratio: it takes very little explosive to bring down a plane and kill hundreds, while at the same time creating a spectacular event that instantaneously affects a large industry in the short and long term. The shoe or underwear bombers would have caused relatively little damage at a shopping mall or casino, but could have easily killed hundreds in an instance and caused enormous economic damage if successful on their original mission.  The liquid bombing plot seemed to be aiming for thousands of deaths and a truly strategic impact, one not attainable by the same number of operatives killing themselves in other public spaces (before it is brought up, I do know of the line of reasoning that a wave of attacks against American malls would have a huge impact…but I guess that I have greater faith in citizen resilience in that we as a nation would not hide at home following such an event).

There is a lot of security theater at airports, but much of it began in response to a rash of hijackings decades ago.  When there was no security it was simple to bring a gun or bomb aboard a flight, take it hostage, and gain attention for one’s political demands.  Steps were taken to make this more difficult.  Reasonable steps should be taken now when instead of simply attention the goals include death on a grand scale.

2. Terrorists do not simply “switch from target to target and weapon to weapon.” Groups consider their goals, determine their resources, and plan for what is then attainable.  The IRA was a sophisticated group capable of inflicting a great number of civilian casualties, yet they were restrained by their political goals.  Al Qaeda has different goals and therefore utilizes different methods.  The same will be true of other current and future groups.  If killing hundreds is a goal but resources are limited to a few poorly trained agents, targeting an airliner would seem more attractive than attempting an operation similar to the assault on Mumbai. Terror is a goal when traditional military victory is out of reach, however it should not be thought that all groups and individuals would generalize this goal into a least common denominator and aim for the easiest target.  That is partly what got us into trouble the last time…(Pre-9/11: What?  Worry about a group of actors with no state backing?!?  Preposterous…now about those Chinese….).

Mr. Schneier has performed an invaluable service over the years bringing to light deficiencies in our homeland security thinking, and Mr. Mann (the author of the article in question) accomplishes the same by exposing it to a wider audience.  Yet I can’t help but think that by not considering the issues a few steps beyond shouts of “security theater,” the conversation we should have about homeland security as a nation will not take place.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 3, 2012 @ 2:45 am

What we really learned on 9/11 is that the heavily subsidized USA airlines that have failed ever to make a profit over any of their corporate lifetimes and usually game bankruptcy and subsidies by the asset strippers will not ever take their security role seriously. So I would argue just stop all subsidies, hidden and obvious, to this sector that benefits its fake owners at the cost of the taxpayers. Then prices will rise and security will be minimized and insurance can cover the risk to the traveler. Hey the railroads need more money for passenger rail. The real fight over TSA is how much security should the public subsidize? Wrong question! Should be how much this transport modality should be subsidized. Is there any honest analysis out there of how much dependency there is of the total GDP on air travel. Leave it for transportation of fruits, flowers, vegetables and FEDEX and UPS.

Comment by Fisher1949

January 3, 2012 @ 6:39 am

This agency is little more than a jobs program for the chronically unemployed providing an illusion of airline security. After 60 billion dollars over ten years they can’t cite one success and are incapable of stopping one anyway.

While 60% of the freight in the cargo-hold remains unscreened, half of that from foreign shippers, they confiscate cupcakes, grope children and strip search old ladies.

In 2011 there were 62 TSA screeners arrested for serious crimes, including rape and murder. Of these, 11 were for sex crimes involving children and 4 for smuggling contraband through security. They can’t prevent crime within their own ranks, but we’re supposed to trust them with airport security.

This agency and its workers are a disgrace and should be replaced with a system that actually works.

TSA Crimes & Abuse

Comment by Donald Quixote

January 3, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

It is an interesting article that should spark serious discussion and research. It was already linked to a previous discussion from June 28, 2011. We have quasi-discussed this subject many times before to include: June 28, 2011 – Absolute security as the minimum adequate security; March 29, 2011 – Front door theater and backstage muck: consent of the governed in aviation security; November 22, 2010 – The Pat Down …; and November 16, 2010 – “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.” I expect we shall continue to discuss it for many years to come.

I strongly agree that this topic requires serious, significant and frank conversations regarding the role of TSA within homeland security and benefits of their current operations, but when shall this conversation occur and where? Only talking about the need for a conversation shall not dismiss the much too appropriate label of “homeland security theater”. Unfortunately, the conversation shall likely only occur after the next major incident where an aviation insider with a SIDA badge or TSA employee is directly implicated in the attack or event.

I so wish I could disagree with FISHER1949 for the good of homeland security.

Comment by SecurityMaster

January 9, 2012 @ 9:20 am

there may be some validity to each point, however, when in combination, the writer’s points seem self-contradicting. Why is air transport the only important target? maybe a slightly higher desirability since it will always make the new as well as remind us of 2001. But the primary and nearly solitary best target? hardly. Because terrorists as a genre do switch from target class and attack vector to others. After the African attacks, it was the 2011 planes. then it was plans against vehicle tunnels, variations of plane attacks, attacks on nightclubs, then to cargo planes and back to passenger planes. (my citations from memory, so possibly some timeline errors). Why does the author miss this? The two issues are that 1-‘Terrorism’ is undefined (or has such a multitude of definitions as to be fairly convoluted). 2-contemporary terrorists arent a unified group with a hierarchal command authority as the IRA and its contemporaries were decades ago – therefore the targets are much more disparate as will be the attack vectors. Therefore TSA becomes irrelevant. Better to inspect cargo (by plane train or boat) than to grope grandmothers and steal childrens’ toys.

Comment by 9/11 Historian

January 9, 2012 @ 10:17 am

I think your point #1 actually makes Mr. Schneier’s point “Terrorists will try to hit the United States again, Schneier says. One has to assume this. Terrorists can so easily switch from target to target and weapon to weapon that focusing on preventing any one type of attack is foolish.”

On 9/11 the target was not the aircraft! The targets on 9/11 were the two World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and unknown. The 9/11 hijackers were using aircraft full of fuel as weapons, their “box cutters” were just means to convince the air crew to turn over control of the weapon to them.

What would cause a reasonable airline captain to respond in this way? Only Official US Government policy on handling of skyjacking could result in the behavior observed on 9/11. Transportation secretary Mineta stated policy as “No US life has ever been lost except by confronting skyjackers, therefore confrontation is to be avoided if possible”. By removing that US Government policy from their armament, terrorists with 9/11 scale plans have been thwarted.

While killing 200-300 people on an airplane would be tragic, it would not be a 9/11 comparable attack. We should reserve the term “terrorist” for those with truly large scale damage, perhaps more than 1000 lives lost. With such a definition, neither the Ft. Hood shooter nor the underpants bomber would qualify, even if his underpants had exploded.

When every group killing becomes “genocide” to make political points, or defend government waste, we loose the ability to accurately describe real historical events like the Holocaust.

Comment by John

January 9, 2012 @ 11:26 am

Note that terrorists can read blogs and the news and will have noticed that any incident involving even a few deaths gets big news and causes Americans to over-react. They will therefore indeed switch targets, as Schneier says, if they can. The virtually complete lack of credible terrorists threats – not to mention attacks – in the US since 9/11 shows how hard this actually is and suggests that police work, not increased security theater is the right approach to minimizing this threat.

(BTW, Schneier doesn’t disagree with your points, but maintains his conclusions: http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2012/01/the_tsa_proves.html )

Comment by Ross

January 9, 2012 @ 6:14 pm

…so… What (exactly) is being suggested? Schneier talks a lot about security theater, and it’s bee pointed out that only a limited few guns were caught by the TSA last year. So the solution is NOT checking? Yes, the “shoe bomber” mentality is idiotic. Even though it didn’t work, it would have been tried again, if it weren’t for the (admittedly annoying) screening that followed.

Wen I was in the 8th grade, a schoolhouse bully hit me in the back of the head and slammed my eye into a microscope. It hurt like hell. So I hit him back.

For the next hour, three other buddies of his repeated the same stunt again because it was so funny – and they knew no one would prevent it.

Terrorists have a similar, unimaginative mentality. Jihad doesn’t require creativity. They do what works. Yes, it requires what he dismissively calls “theater”, but is Schneier willing to hold both the government AND the airlines free of liability – both legal and financial – because he thinks making people take their shoes off is pointless?

Pingback by The TSA Proves its Own Irrelevance: A compilation of its own “Top 10 Good Catches of 2011″ — ‘not a single terrorist on the list. Mostly forgetful, and entirely innocent people’ « InvestmentWatch

January 9, 2012 @ 11:10 pm

[…] related news, here’s a rebuttal of the the Vanity Fair article about the TSA and airline security that featured me. I agree […]

Pingback by Attack the System » Blog Archive » The TSA Proves its Own Irrelevance

January 10, 2012 @ 2:50 am

[…] related news, here’s a rebuttal of the the Vanity Fair article about the TSA and airline security that featured me. I agree with […]

Comment by Naughty Pingback

January 10, 2012 @ 9:06 am

Took the Schneier quote perversely out of context. He said “I agree with the two points at the end of the post; I just don’t think it changes any of my analysis.” You can’t leave the quote at “I agree …”

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