Why we are engineered for another 9/11; the TSA is working backwards

The media and blogosphere is going nuts with this recent hulla-balloo over the TSA pat-downs and full-body scanners. In news segment after segment, after the guest tirades about lack of privacy, dignity, pornography scan and whatever else is the convenient bumper sticker claim of the hour, the anchor eventually asks the guest, “What would you do differently?”

The question generally sends the guest into a sputtering mutter and the anchor then makes his/her point, “See? You have nothing. This is the best system we have even though it is imperfect, so sit down and shut up. We all want to be safe.”

Only that’s not really true.

All the TSA did after 9/11 is replace a patch-work of private security guards of questionable authority with standardized, uniformed TSA agents with unchallengeable authority and a McDonald-ized set of procedures. All airports must be set up a standard way. All interactions with passengers must be conducted in this manner with this script. All escalations are handled by a supervisor, here’s how passengers proceed through, here is how to wand, etc, etc.

When there is a procedure and a script, employees to fill the jobs are easy to find, easy to process, easy to train, cheap to pay and cheap to replace. It is like changing out a bolt in a piece of machinery. That is how we approached the job at hand; fill 65,000 jobs in less than a year. Instead of asking ourselves why we needed 65,000 TSA agents, we just marched forward to replace the patchwork system we had into a uniform one.

It’s how we handle anything that needs mass-processing in this country. And it is prone to malicious injection because it is standardized and predictable. A smart man who happens to be a retired Dayton police officer told me something right after 9/11 I’ll never forget. He said the minute we go to a national police system is when we become vulnerable. We may find it easier to communicate and coordinate, but it is easy to inject a virus and mole into a system. It is almost impossible to do the same with patchwork.

What I would do differently
Inject unpredictability into the airport environment. That helpless lost young man you helped who couldn’t remember where he parked? TSA agent. That pretty chatty girl who was in the elevator who wanted to know where you were flying off to? TSA agent. That grandmother whose cell phone battery just died and she asked to borrow your cell phone to call her niece? TSA agent. That frazzled businessman who was running late for his flight and wanted to know what time it was? TSA agent. That college student who thought your iPad was really cool, where did you get it and can I see it? TSA agent. That blind man with the dog at the duty-free store who asked you if he was holding a bottle of Absolut? TSA agent. The dog too. That hipster who liked your shoes and where did you get them? TSA agent.

All watching you, all asking you questions to determine how you react in situations that are unpredictable. And all either clearing you or escalating you before you reach security and even after you pass through.

And we all pass through metal detectors set up really high and we put our loose stuff in bins like we did before. We are waved through by cheerful uniformed guards but it is all just a show. Only the passengers who have been escalated past a certain comfort point are channeled through a special “high risk” area where their tickets, documentation, luggage and person is more thoroughly searched. Most of us blithely proclaim the United States is the most free country to walk around in. No planes are highjacked, because we all trust each other. That is how we live with freedom in America.

Or at least that is what the TSA wants us to believe. Just like Walt Disney makes everyone believe the streets on the Happiest Place on Earth are never littered with trash.

We would need less than half of the thousands we employ already with the TSA. We would have to commit to hiring and training people to be really good actors and profilers (not racial profilers) and we would have to be willing to inject new scenarios and outcomes every day into the airports. We would have to pay these people well. We may even be able to save a few from a life as a greeter at WalMart (who can spot a lie better than someone who has raised a teen-ager? AARP, you listening?)

We’d have to be committed to the real security of human beings by applying a human solution, not a blind faith in technology with a promise of automated safety. A system is predictable and predictability can be injected and highjacked.

What about putting people in charge again scares us most?

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Don’t touch my junk; a TSA stand-off anthem for anti-healthcare reform and other government good stuff

In the 1970s, the government told us lead paint was perfectly safe. In the 1960s, the government told us asbestos was perfectly safe. In the 1950s, the government told us smoking was perfectly safe. In the 1940s, the government told us prenatal drugs were safe. Need I go on?

What are we missing here? Why are we being prodded into being hyper-focused on the prudery of being seen naked and ignoring the very questionable health safety claims of these airport full-body scanners? If we were told that in order to board a plane, we would need to each be given a flu shot, for our own protection from travelers who may be coughing and that shot would be administered by a TSA agent who carries no medical malpractice insurance or verifiable certification, would we submit to that? If we didn’t, we couldn’t board the plane. Nor could we leave once we entered the security area without being subject to arrest and fines. Would 98% of the flying public submit to that? Probably. We’re sheep and the TSA knows it.

CBS, NBC and other networks are saying that 81% of the public support the full-body scanners and 98% of all passengers are submitting to the full-body scan. They are in effect, saying that the “don’t touch my junk, opt-out” protestors are marginal, fringe, prudish nut-jobs. While the public is being corralled into the propaganda of the scanners as a “strip search,” the real concern of the scanner is being downplayed and all but ignored by both the TSA and the media. The real concern should be the health issues associated with using x-rays in a non-medical environment for non-medical reasons. The real concern should be how the TSA uses and abuses power once challenged by those who gave them the power — the American voters.

The double-down, dig-in, jaw-clenching, frustration-laden, totalitarian, “you don’t have to fly” rhetoric of Sec. of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and TSA Director John Pistole is adding fuel to the fire of the debate. Not only is it adding fuel to the TSA v flying public, but it is giving ammunition to the GOP for health care repeal. “See how they act when you resist?” they will point. “This is your government doing what they think is best for you.”

And that has consequences. Even people who voted for Health Care reform will be doing a second take and asking themselves, “If this is how they treat me when I resist at the airport, what if I resist that mandated health care? Do I really want to be treated like this when I go to the doctor?”

What the TSA is doing is not real security. Barking at people non-stop, aggressively callously and disrespectfully patting down travelers, irresponsibly submitting them to doses of radiation that may or may not be a “safe dose,” threatening resisters with arrest or detainment is not security. It is a circus and a breeding ground for small-minded people to wield power over helpless citizens with impunity. We’re seeing this vein in Napolitano and Pistole. We see and feel it in the hands of the TSA agent who neither sees nor hears us as he gropes and recites the policy he has memorized but never listened to.

A calm, control of the environment is real security. While I don’t generally use Hollywood as an example of real life, a quick viewing of Roadhouse should be part of the training. Bouncers who yell, grab and provoke only increase violence. Coolers who quickly, calmly and quietly diffuse the situation leave most of the patrons not even knowing there was ever a threat. I’ve seen this work in many European airports.

You can feel a difference in the air between Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) and New York John F. Kennedy (JFK) that is more than a little subtle. In AMS, you see the heavily armed guards around the perimeter, but they are not showy. You know you are being watched but not threatened. The guard who asks you questions in rapid succession is always calm, polite and respectful, but you are not able to goad him/her into an argument or force a break in character. (I’ve seen Americans try.) They ask you if it is ok to reach inside your coat in a soft, polite tone that makes you feel like you have a choice (you really don’t.) When you land on the US side, the transportation and customs people start yelling into the crowd to “get your passports out,” “make sure you have your Declaration Form 6059B complete,” “US citizens in this line, everyone else here” and on and on. The anxiety and circus continues to mount as the luggage moves through customs and you are “greeted” by agents. “Where were you? How long were you there? Did you visit any farms….” without respect or emotion except frustration and contempt.

But I digress.

The Federal Government has very few real opportunities to interact directly with the American public. Most of the time, we buy and sell things from corporations. But of the three government points most citizens touch — IRS, USPS and TSA — it seems to me that they could at least stop and think about how their most intimate interaction policy is affecting all others, seen and unseen. No less than the setback of modern healthcare for several more generations is at stake.

If you lose the trust of mothers with children at the TSA, you lose them at the doctor’s office as well.

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Real airport security is very low tech

With all the news media chattering on about this latest round of terrorism with flight 253 and the guy with a bad stomach in the restroom, we are seeing the latest group of pundits advocating for more technology, full-body scans, etc, etc.

Oh, brother.

Real airport security is far more low-tech than that. Here is the formula, in case anyone at the Department of Homeland Security or TSA wants to read it and maybe do something effective rather than expensive and whiz-bang.

Train TSA agents to be charming and firm
If you need some inspiration for this, watch Road House. “Be nice” was Dalton’s direction to his staff. And nice works, until you’re told to not be nice. In that case, effective, clean take-down is far more effective in controlling crowds than is a wild display of guns, badges and shouting.

Ask simple, rapid-fire questions in a dispassionate manner at checkpoints and randomly in the gate area. Where were you born, what day is it, what city are you in, how long will you be here, what is your mother’s name. And stare the passenger straight in the eye as you are asking and force the passenger to look back. If cultural differences prevent them from holding a stare, the passenger should be reminded that looking the agent directly in the eye is a requirement for travel. But gently and firm.

Train TSA agents to be unemotional and not take any comment or question personally. Really, it can be done and it is very effective. The Marine Corps does it every day. So does the Queen’s Guard.

Pay TSA well. Train them and expect high-quality, consistent results. Discipline emotional responses. Right now, they are seen by most Americans as over-zealous mall cops who are quickly prone to anger and an excessive display of authority which they will wield for petty reasons, especially in smaller market airports like Dayton, Ohio.

Use dogs
Nothing makes a smuggler more nervous than a sniffing German Shepherd walking in and out of the boarding gates sniffing at every piece of luggage. And since dogs sniff at crotches as part of their nature, you get the added benefit of that without training, which would have come in handy for this last round of explosives. And use a lot of them. Be everywhere, all the time. Dogs don’t take anything personally, don’t profile based on race, gender or religion and are pretty darn accurate. Taking them for a 3-4 hour walk and a sniff is their idea of heaven.

And, after all the passengers have boarded the plane, take the dog down and up the aisle one more time in the plane. The dang thing will be just sitting on the tarmac anyway, so why not use a few extra minutes for security.

And nobody messes with the dog. Nobody.

Don’t dress in para-military garb
The dog handler and all security past the checkpoint should be dressed in simple, plain clothes but that also makes it clear they are the controlling authority. They should also be armed, but not obviously so. An over-armed security agent in an area that is supposed to be secure just says “I am more scared of being attacked than I am of defending myself.”

Dress in para-military garb
And carry very big sticks. Any area before the security check point should have armed guards very obviously and strategically placed. When you are entering into an airport terminal, there should be a “no-shit, this is serious” tone set from the start.

Airport insecurity is a human problem, created by human beings for the purpose of inflicting harm on other human beings. Pushing more technology at the problem just makes solving the real causes of the problem more complicated and gives passengers a false sense of security.

*For the record, I am not a security expert, but I do watch people in airports and other public places both here and abroad and can make judgments based on observed behaviors. Eventually, a pattern emerges.