Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Are TSA procedures really making us safer? - by Judge Jim Gray

Last year, thousands and thousands of Americans at the airport lost at least 30 minutes of their lifetimes by standing in longer lines and complying with all of the TSA's increasingly laborious, invasive and time-consuming restrictions.

Has anyone ever done a cost-benefit analysis on these security checkpoint programs? TSA has about 60,000 employees, and today there are about 350 full-body scanners in operation in about 70 of our nation's airports, with about 1,000 expected to be operational by the end of 2011 All of this costs more that $10 per passenger per screening. That also means that those of us who pose no danger will be forced into enhanced scannings at the airports that have them, but the terrorists will simply choose to begin their flights at airports that do not yet have those procedures, like ours here in Orange County.

How much safer are we because of the loss of time and added costs? If anyone really knows, they aren't telling. Why is that? For that answer, one must understand governmental bureaucracies, which are driven by politics.

First, it doesn't matter how much time and money are spent or wasted, or how many millions of passengers are inconvenienced, forced to be humiliated or unnecessarily exposed to radiation, if even one person is injured or loses his life to a terrorist, the TSA will be in political trouble. Thus, the TSA has every incentive to avoid every conceivable risk — regardless of the probabilities, privacy intrusions or expenses involved.

Second, politicians thrive when they are seen as fighting against enemies of the state. So now it is the "terrorists" who furnish the excuse for our government to deprive us of our liberties, take more of our money, and, along the way, keep the very politicians behind this "movement" firmly in power. Over time other groups have also been used to justify such actions, such as Muslims, communists, Jews, atheists and more. Of course, many dictators in other countries around the world have clung to power in a similar fashion by citing the United States as their common enemy.

Thus we need to have some responsible party intercede in the process, do a cost-benefit analysis, and give us recommendations about how to go forward. But in this we also must be realistic and understand that there is no way that our safety can actually be guaranteed in today's world. As a practical matter, all a suicide bomber has to do to terrorize our country would be to detonate a bomb in the line of people at airports waiting to be screened, or do the same thing at any theater, train station, athletic stadium or highway bridge or tunnel in our country. How could we possibly protect all of those places? Furthermore, terrorists don't even have to be successful, because simply attempting their various plots seems to be keeping us terrorized enough.

So how can we defeat the terrorists? Simply by taking reasonable and logical precautions, relying upon the most effective counter-terrorism device we can use, which is good and timely intelligence, and then simply refusing to be terrorized. That will render the terrorists ineffective.

In the meantime, we passengers are now faced with the choice of going through a full-body X-ray scanner, being subjected to a highly intrusive full-body pat down, or simply choosing not to fly on airplanes. The body-scanner X-ray machines are euphemistically called "naked scanners" because they provide graphic images of our bodies, including genitalia, breasts and other personal effects like urine bags, sanitary napkins and padded clothing. And regardless of their training, it is irresistible for TSA employees, just like any other human beings, to gawk at what they are seeing. In fact, so far several reports have cited situations in which the scanners have been used by TSA employees to humiliate some of their fellow workers who were going through the procedure.

The government says that the amount of radiation put out by the scanners is not dangerous. But, unlike the X-ray machines in your doctors' offices, once they are in operation, the airport scanners are mostly not required to be calibrated any further, so no one really knows how much radiation they are emitting. And even with limited exposure, the radiation is directed at the passenger's entire body, and no one knows the effect it will have upon the corneas of the eyes, which are the most sensitive areas for radiation damage.

The government also says that no visual records are kept of the screenings, but there is much information to the contrary. That information says that individual screenings can be maintained and even transferred to prosecutors, if necessary, for evidentiary purposes. If that is true, then the TSA has the largest library of child pornography in the world.

If passengers "opt out" of the full-body X-ray scanners, they will be subjected to an enhanced, genital-groping body pat-down, which would be classified as a sexual assault in any other context. In fact, newspapers have been full of truly concerning stories about these pat-downs. My own wife tells of having been completely "felt up," as she was recently going through the screening process at LAX. In some respects, I'm glad I wasn't there, because I would probably have had difficulty controlling my anger!

What would be a better approach? The answer is to privatize security screening and allow each airline to choose the most appropriate procedure. The private sector is much better equipped to adopt a cost-benefit analysis that will balance the issues of safety, intrusion and cost. Then probably most airlines would adopt the approach that is used by Israel's El-Al Airlines, which is simply to take people aside and talk to them.

Analyzing people's behavior through observations, conversation and the use of databases, plus focusing upon those "red flag passengers" who paid in cash, are only traveling one-way or don't have much luggage will go a long way in exposing realistic criminal threats. We spend much too much time, energy and money in the name of political correctness searching harmless travelers, and too little focusing upon legitimate potential threats. That must change.

James P. Gray is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the composer of the high school musical revue "Americans All" (Heuer Publishers), and can be contacted at JimPGray@sbcglobal.net or through his website at http://www.JudgeJimGray.com.


Jayelle said...

When it comes to air travel, as we know, safety is paramount, at whatever the involved cost and inconvenience to everybody concerned. Yes, it's a pain in the butt, but this is the situation that terrorism has forced the West to address, adapt to and action. With all respect, Jim, I believe your last question and comment is ill advised. Body scanners would have prevented these 9/11 bad guys from entering the aircraft carrying the means of sharp objects to achieve their objectives. Would you agree with this last comment, Jim? If so, then good. If not, then why not, please? In Europe, we have had airport body, cabin hand luggage and hold luggage scanner security in operation for over 30 years. It's always been a pain for us to go through an airport, like, say, London, but we put up with it because we know that it's important to our safety in flight. Since 9/11, I have believed that President George W. Bush should have apologised to the American people for not having these security measures in place, like the rest of the western world already has. What the bad guys did on 9/11 is indeed terrible, so please don't misunderstand me, in this respect, but this could have been avoided, if the correct airport security had been in place. It is for this single reason that I believe that Bush owes and apology. Am I saying that 9/11 was avoidable? Indeed I am, Jim. People could say that if it had not been 9/11 then it would have been something else. OK, so we take the "something else" on an as-come basis and deal with the current realities in the meantime. Are we going to learn something here, in respect of the inconveniences that are mentioned in the article? or are we going to look at airport security only from a cost-effictive and passenger inconvenience point of view? If anyone is still whining about airport security procedures, and losing thirty minutes of their lifetime, then I would only ask that they pause for one moment and remember all the people who died on 9/11 - and the pain and grief that their loved ones will endure for the rest of their lives. By doing this, they may begin to thank security services for implementing this pain in the butt, airport security, and be glad that they will get off the aircraft in one piece at their destination, because the people on the 9/11 flights did not. These procedures are not making us safer - that is not their intention. Their intention is to keep us safe - and this cannot be quantified, or compromised in any way. I believe it's time to take bull by the horns and get used to it. Respects, Jim. Jayelle

Franziska Patterson said...

I disagree with the previous comment. The TSA procedures do not keep us safe. Nothing can actually keep you completely free from harm. Even if TSA procedures minimized or eliminated the terrorism risk (which I don't think they do, because their procedures are rigid and terrorism is flexible), you can still get harmed while flying. Your airplane may crash. You may run into a crazy person, who doesn't have a bomb or weapon, but maybe loses it and gets violent. No one can guarantee safety and a harm-free life. And poorly trained and poorly educated TSA officials most certainly can't. They completely lack reasoning and intelligence to really do anything well. They could not have prevented 9/11.

Lastly, even if they DID keep us safe from terrorism, the bomb threats on airplanes is such a comparatively small one. Other things are far more likely to kill us on a daily basis (the way we eat, drive, etc.) but no one is asking for time consuming, intrusive intervention in those areas. In Oregon the FBI just caught a young man who would have blown up a van of explosives at a huge gathering. If we're so concerned with terrorism and safety, shouldn't we now spread those measures then? Maybe scan everyone before they enter their cars, or any public place? If the scanners are so effective and terrorism such a horrible great threat, wouldn't that be a logical step? But nobody would want that.

I fly on a regular basis with children. I don't want to be blown up. But I realize the risk is small, and I'd rather have that risk than have myself and my children violated each time I fly. These measures are simply wrong, and it's frustrating that nothing seems to be able to stop the TSA.

Unknown said...

actually Jayelle, it's not even close to a sure thing that the body scanners would have prevented the terrorists from getting their box cutters through on 9/11.

adam savage managed to get much more dangerous 12 inch razorblades through the body scanner (http://www.securitygeneration.com/privacy/tsa-body-scanner-missed-12-inch-razor-blades/), and all the terrorists would have had to do is stash the box cutters in a carry-on bag to avoid any chance of them showing up on the body scanners at all. and there's also the fact that, prior to 9/11, boxcutters likely wouldn't have even been considered a security concern had they been found.

i also find it difficult to believe that europe has had backscatter machines in place for over 30 years. do you have a source for that claim?

misharoz said...

Judge Jim Gray, all I have to say is that you clearly listed all the reasons why these new scanners and pat-down procedures are ineffective and demeaning to the American public. Israel implements a system of questioning in the airport security that is world renowned. Groping small children, Catholic nuns, and exposing American citizens to untold amounts of radiation is not acceptable.

lidar532 said...

Hi Jim,

In you post you said:

"genital-groping body pat-down, which would be classified as a sexual assault in any other context. In fact, newspapers have been full of truly concerning stories about these pat-downs. My own wife tells of having been completely "felt up," as she was recently going through the screening process at LAX. In some respects, I'm glad I wasn't there, because I would probably have had difficulty controlling my anger!"

My question is if you feel you wife truly was sexually assaulted as defined by California law, why not advise her to file criminal sexual assault charges against the TSA and let the prosecutor consider it?

Do you believe TSA pat down agents are immune to such laws regardless of the nature of the touching?

Please explain how TSA employees are above state sexual assault laws..

I read a prosecutor in the SFO area was willing to press charges if any were brought.

PsySciGuy said...

The purpose of federal officials & politicians, using the TSA as a tool, is not to protect the public. Rather, it is to CONTROL the public. Most people who enter politics/government service/policing do so to control others. This need for control is driven by fear. As threats appear their fear increases and drives their need for more control. All attempts to limit their control instills fear and thus drives an increasing need for control. The only solution to this situation is to replace them.

Unknown said...

Legalise Cannabis International: You have a pretty dim understanding of security.

First of all, "body scanners" would not have prevented the 9/11 bad guys - the problem wasn't that we disallowed box cutters and they hid them on their body, the problem was that we were *allowing* box cutters on the plane. Actually that isn't even the problem, the problem was that crews and passengers had been trained to capitulate in a hijacking: the attackers used that to their advantage.

What really prevents another 9/11 today is two things: (1) the pilots are behind reinforced doors and (2) crew and passengers will no longer obey a hijacker. And BTW, #2 got implemented real fast: that's why one of the flights failed to hit its target.

Not scanning carry-on bags, and not sending passengers through metal detectors would be allowing a pointless gaping hole in security. But the body scanners and pat downs don't fill that purpose since we already have, you know, metal detectors and baggage x-ray screening.

What the TSA claims is that these procedures might help prevent another Abdulmutallab situation, where a guy smuggled explosives but no detonator aboard a plane in his underwear and then was unable to set it off because all he had was a match. He had to spend 20 minutes in the airplane bathroom preparing the explosive. No one but him was hurt and the damage he caused was minor. And according to a BBC experiment, his attack would have been unlikely to bring down the plane anyway. Plus, the GAO believes the new measures would have been unlikely to stop the attempt.

And THAT's the excuse for losing our individual control over our bodies.

Virtualchoirboy said...

Respectfully, I must disagree with Jayelle and the assertion that "safety is paramount". In my opinion, human rights are paramount and the continuous drive to have us surrender those rights in the name of security theater is wrong.

If security is so important, why are the shopkeepers in the secure area not scanned with the same level of scrutiny as the passengers? How about the baggage handlers or any of the myriad folks that work on the tarmac? What about the reports that the body scanners can easily miss large quantities of explosives or small weapons when attached to the body in a specific way (i.e. thin and on the side of the body)? Heck, even baggage scanning has problems. Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame discovered two 12 inch blades for a bone carver on his person AFTER passing through "security". What about the TSA refusing to screen passengers that show up in a bathing suit or skimpy clothing until they leave the security area and put on additional clothing?

I firmly believe that Jim is right. The TSA is a large, unweildy government body that has little ability to properly react to any potential threat. Abolish the TSA, require the various transportation companies (airlines, train service, bus companies, etc) to implement their own standards and remove liability shields or protections for when they fail. If they cannot prevent a terrorist attack, let the business get sued by the families of the victims. Require that they fund the security response (fire, police, EPA cleanup, etc). That alone will provide incentive for the businesses to evaluate security with an appropriate cost-benefit analysis instead of the blind reactions we have now.

Anonymous said...

I feel that Judge Gray has it right. In my opinion the benefits of these new procedures do not outweigh the risks. In the US we have a constitution that our forefathers set forth to protect our rights, liberty and happiness. These body scanners and pat downs infringe upon the rights of Americans everyday. TSA is terrorizing us just the same as the terrorists are. While 9/11 angered me, saddened me, and provoked a multitude of other emotions; I can still look past that and see that giving up our rights in the name of supposed security is unwise. There will always be some way for terrorist to get to us; rather it be by aircraft, missles, bombing malls, etc... We cannot protect ourselves from everything. At what point does Big Brother back off and say (as it has said in the past), "do things A, B, and C at your own risk?" We need to stop relying on Big Government as much and start being more self reliant. I would like to know what happens when a terrorist detonates an anal bomb or vaginal bomb or how about this, when they have a bomb sewn into their skin. What happens then? Are we gonna be subjected to cavity searches, colonoscopies, are medical personnel gonna be on site to determine if the stitches that someone is sporting' are true stitches? Are we gonna be exposed to more radiation machines or how about just right down strip searching us? The thing that people need to understand is where will the line be drawn? When will TSA finally go overboard? By the time that TSA has gone overboard will it be too late? This isn't about security anymore; it's about power. The citizens of this great nation need to take back the power and once again live by that great document that our forefathers sat up.

Lynn said...

The "bad guys" on 9/11 didn't actually sneak anything through security. At the time, small knives, such as box cutters, were permitted on flights. They could have pulled them out of their bags, shown them to the security officers, and then walked right by. Nothing was missed by screeners. What we did miss were several opportunities to screen their background and recent behaviors which would have raised red flags all over the place.
No matter what we REactively prohibit passengers from taking on plane, someone will be able to find a way to cause harm with permissible items. What we need to do is PROactively screen people to determine if they are a threat. After all, it is the people who cause the harm, not the tweezers or lighters or other prohibited items all by themselves.

TRSKMS said...


You must not be thinking things through carefully. These procedures would NOT have stopped the "underwear bomber" (most experts think that -- at best -- he MIGHT have been pulled aside for a second screening), and they do not protect anyone.

At most, they force the terrorists to be (very) slightly inconvenienced by having to move their bomb materials into a body cavity. Mules have done it for years.

So, you are willing to remove people's fundamental rights for no additional safety whatsoever. It's called "security theater" for a reason.

I thought this was an excellent article and plan to share it!

marina said...

LCI, 9/11 could have been stopped if the cockpit doors were locked. And I would think that a lock would be cheaper than a giant x-ray machine...

There are several reasons why Americans object to these scanners. To simplify the reasons:

-they invade privacy...

-they are expensive...

-the TSA has NEVER caught a would-be-terrorist at the security checkpoint...

-opting out of the scanners means you get to be molested and made an example of - police officers are not even allowed to do the things that the TSA agents do because it violates the fourth amendment of our constitution...

-exposure to radiation...

-it's a slippery slope to a loss of more privacy...

-it's not about national security, it's about money, they just like to say it's in the interest of "national security" so no one will oppose them...

Safety is indeed paramount, but one must consider which methods and means of security are effective and which are not. Just because the government says it's in your best interest doesn't mean you should believe them.
Question authority, always.

The scanners are not a solution. The fact that they are being used now is a clear sign that the terrorists are winning -fear is a more powerful weapon after all. The United States is destroying itself from the inside, and personal liberties will be the first to go.

Unknown said...

This comment was seriously posted by someone with the screen name, "Legalise Cannabis International"? This is the most hilarious thing I've seen in weeks.

Lyn said...

This comment is in response to the previous comment from Legalise Cannabis International. You say that the scanners would have prevented the 9/11 attacks, but that isn't necessarily true. It has been shown time and time again that potentially dangerous objects have STILL made it through security with the scanners and pat-downs. I refuse to give up any of my liberties for possible safety (especially security theater). When I think of 9/11, I do feel terrible that it happened. However, I also feel that the terrorists are winning just by making us change our ways of life. We are being terrorized by our own government just to get on a plane. So, the terrorists have already won without having to blow up any more planes. It's unacceptable.

John Jay Myers said...

I really enjoyed this post, though I think it is a shame we have again missed the biggest point.

Why do people want to get on planes with box cutters and kill the people on board?

Which is why I wrote this: