It's A Gray Area: Are TSA procedures really making us safer?

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.

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