For the TSA, all risks are created equal

John Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration, recently told The Atlantic in an interview that “we’ll never eliminate risk” of terrorist attacks on aviation.

He’s right, which is why the TSA’s policy of treating everyone as an equal risk is so misguided. It has led to the outrages of the past few weeks and the public backlash against the TSA. We need to scuttle the TSA’s equal-risk policy in favor of one that concentrates on genuine potential risks.

Reading the interview, one is struck by how reasonable Pistole sounds, presenting the TSA’s current policies as the best we can do in trying circumstances.

The trouble is in the policy’s application. The individual performance of TSA officers is highly variable. They possess extreme discretionary powers, but there is little to no recourse for passengers who have bad experiences. Even worse, TSA officers essentially have power without responsibility.

That is why a woman can get harassed for attempting to follow the rules on breast milk screening and a menstruating woman gets selected for additional screening because of her panty liner, while a TV reporter can get through security with two 12-inch razor blades sitting snugly in his pocket. It is also why an ex-Playboy model in a wheelchair wearing nothing but lingerie got enhanced pat-downs twice in one week and a former Baywatch actress was singled out for additional screening.

The case of the Baywatch actress is particularly interesting for the TSA’s response. An agency spokesman said that “people who are celebrities shouldn’t be surprised if and when they’re recognized.” This makes no sense. If they’re recognized as not terrorists, then why should they have to go through enhanced security without additional information that they may be a threat? Perhaps terrorist “chatter” that day suggested that a former Baywatch star might be planning a midair atrocity, but I seriously doubt it.

To end these outrages and to bring accountability back to airport screening, the TSA’s monopoly as a nationalized screening industry must end. A 2007 study for the TSA found that private screeners consistently outperformed the TSA bureaucrats, so the TSA suppressed it, earning the agency censure from the Government Accountability Office. Airports should be allowed to opt out of the federal system and hire their own screeners, who will be more responsive to customers and must comply with federal regulations in any event.

In addition, to cut down on lines and speed up the process, certain categories of passengers should be given a degree of dispensation from screening. As international security guru Edward Luttwak put it, “Easily recognizable groups that not even the most ingenious terrorists could simulate” should not be viewed as equal in risk to others groups or individuals. Examples include “touring senior citizens traveling together (a category that contains a good portion of all American, European and East Asian tourist traffic), airline flying personnel who come to the security gate as a crew, families complete with children.”

As Luttwak suggests, the critical question would be whether members of those groups “recognize each other as such.”

Another solution would be the institution of a robust frequent-traveler system that would enable members who undergo extensive background checks to bypass security, or at the very least not have to remove shoes and belts before going through. Airlines, which employ up to 150 people each to run their frequent-flyer schemes, could be given this responsibility to avoid it becoming yet another government bureaucracy.

The airlines would have a very real interest in ensuring their scheme members were not a risk; remember the fatal economic damage to Pan Am when one of its planes was downed in a terrorist bombing in 1988.

Removing large numbers of travelers from the pool of potential suspects would enable airport screeners to concentrate on those who might pose genuine risks. It would also reduce the number of agents needed, in turn enabling the hiring of more highly qualified personnel, who might treat people as customers rather than cattle. It would make Israeli-style screening far more achievable, something that might otherwise turn into a tedious box-checking exercise for the agents if it were implemented under the current security regime.

In the end, detecting terrorists at the airport could become more like detecting shoplifters. It would lead to an unpleasant experience for the guilty and a pleasurable experience for the rest of us. It might even attract people back on to planes and off the roads, where they are more likely to die in an accident, and reassure us that the federal government can read the Fourth Amendment. Even John Pistole might see the benefits of that.