How many more TSA screening failures can we afford?

How many more TSA screening failures can we afford?

If Jon Corbett’s viral video about how he outsmarted the TSA’s full-body scanners doesn’t end the controversial screening program, then it’s probably the beginning of the end.

And when the agency charged with protecting America’s transportation systems unplugs the last scanner and wheels it out of the airport terminal, TSA will have to answer to the American taxpayers about its latest failure.

Well, maybe.

The TSA is about halfway through deploying 1,800 scanners at a cost of about $170,000 per unit. The total pricetag of the program — $289 million — may not seem like a lot in these days of trillion-dollar trade deficits. But when you factor in the $2.4 billion in extra staffing costs over the seven-year life cycle of the machines the Government Accountability Office says the agency will have to cover, it all adds up.

Corbett, a 27-year-old technology entrepreneur from Miami Beach, Fla., says he wants to end the TSA’s scans and pat-downs in favor of more effective, non-invasive methods. He foiled the machines by simply turning to his side and exploiting a blind spot on the scanners.

Yep, that’s all it took. Terrorists take note.

TSA dismissed the video as “a crude attempt to allegedly show how to circumvent TSA screening procedures.” But it also didn’t say he was wrong, which led many observers to conclude that Corbett was correct.

This is hardly the first screening technology breakdown for the TSA. In 2009, the agency quietly killed its bomb-sniffing “puffer” machines, which had cost $36 million. Dirt and humidity in airports reportedly led to frequent breakdowns of the devices, but even more embarrassing to the TSA is the fact that the puffers didn’t catch a single terrorist. They just puffed away, blowing air at passengers until finally breathing their last gasp.

Did anyone have to answer for this waste of our money? Not really. This transcript of a 2010 hearing of a House science subcommittee is more or less the extent of what’s publicly known, and while there’s a feisty exchange between Oregon Rep. David Wu and a government researcher, it amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Of course, the TSA’s screening failures haven’t just been on the tech side, but let’s stay there for a second. In 2006, TSA banned all but small amounts of liquids and gels from being brought on board, but promised it would lift the restrictions once it could safely scan your Starbucks latte. And even though it says its deployed hundreds of so-called Bottled Liquid Scanners, the ban remains.

This is a failure of another kind — a failure to perform — and its costs are not as easy to estimate. How many pricey shampoos, lotions and drinks have been unceremoniously tossed into a checkpoint trashcan because the TSA can’t get its act together? Who knows.

And let’s not forget the screening performance failures, which could be the costliest of all. Like missing the deadline for screening cargo on international flights.

Or missing a deadly weapon or two at the airport. Not a day seems to go by without hearing a story about passengers slipping through TSA’s vaunted 20-layer security process with contraband. Here’s a woman who boarded a plane with a firearm in her purse. Here’s a large knife that got through security in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Here’s a sword.

C-4, anyone?

Fortunately, none of these passengers had nefarious intentions. But what if they did?

We could spend billions more experimenting with the latest unproven technology, whether it’s a new body scanner or explosive detection gadget. We could fret about the knives, stun-guns and grenades that were caught by TSA screeners, as the agency does every week on its blog — or the ones that got through, which it never seems to mention. That, in turn, can be used to justify the TSA’s bloated budget.

But at what point should we say, “Enough is enough?” Magnetometers, dogs and well-trained screeners work just fine, thanks very much.

Insurance companies must make these difficult decisions every day. They have to run a cost-benefit analysis on patients and either say, “Yes, we’ll cover the treatment,” or, “No, we won’t.” It’s particularly agonizing for someone with a chronic or terminal illness, hearing an insurance company representative essentially say your life has monetary value. But if they didn’t tell you, it would probably be up to a government bureaucrat.

Here we are in a similar situation. We have to ask: What’s a passenger’s life worth?

Answer that question, and knowing what to do next will be a little easier.

Do we throw a billion dollars at yet another iffy gadget that some say invades our privacy? Or do we say “no” to what many consider just another expensive prop for America’s security theater?

Do we continue offering this agency a blank check — or do we pull it back, maybe privatize airport security, and agree that TSA will never be anything other than an expensive deterrent to terrorist attacks?

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Facebook - LinkedIn - Google Plus

  • TonyA_says

    Apparently there is some pressure from the powers that be to the mainstream media not to cover this story. From Corbett’s blog :

  • Christopher Elliott

    I’m working on a story about this, and have asked the TSA. I hope to have an update soon.

  • SoBeSparky

    Some faulty logic here.  These measures, laugh at them or not, are a deterrent.  Yes, people who would carry on dangerous items actually think twice before they do so.  How do you measure the number of people who decided not to trust their fate to a machine puffing air and stripping you of clothing?  

    Effective 100% of the time or not, the perception of the machinery is reality.  And if a lot of people perceive them to catch people with contraband, then they work.  You may not like trusting your life to perception when you fly.  I don’t.  But the deterrent factor is real. 

    If you check out the complete record of known terrorists, you easily discover these people are not brain surgeons, nuclear scientists or rocket engineers.  Many indeed are caught and/or deterred by the machines.  So even a half-effective machine is better than none.  

    And remember, you are not just being screened by a machine.  You are being photographed.  Your profile is being checked.  The no-fly list is being checked.  The airline will flag you for security upon certain booking conditions.  There are numerous steps and layers in this process, not just a machine, partially effective or not.

    P.S. The economic-loss argument is specious. If you needed a Coke before security, then you still need one five minutes later after security. Buy before or after. Where is the loss? On the other hand, you could say the opposite. You buy a Coke, fail to finish it before security, and have to buy another after security to slake your thirst. The merchants get twice the sales and the consumer loses by spending too much on Coke.

    Dangerous to hypothesize without analyzing all economic alternatives. A common fallacy is to measure economic loss or gain (as well as job loss or gain) without considering the shift of money or employment.

  • Nancy Marine Dickinson

    Wow…  Just – wow.  Only a government agency like this could get away with throwing out the window so much of our tax dollars and the Feds turn a blind eye.  The TSA is the biggest/best example of pork in the history of the USA.

    I REALLY like Tony’s link about TSA strongly cautioning the MSM against running with the story.  I can’t believe they listened.  So much for freedom of the press.

    Edit: Came back after learning another citizen journalist actually e-mailed the TSA agent in question, Sari Koshetz, to ask if the she actually DID “strongly caution” reporters to not do the story. Briefly, she responded and didn’t even try to hide the fact she did this.

    The link for THAT is (and I apologize in advance for the name of the post):

  • Extramail

    Do you really think the TSA is going to cease to exist? Just yesterday the senate couldn’t even pass a bi-partisan bill to consolidate overlapping agencies. Washington is as much of a joke as the TSA it created. And, once again, passengers have proven that they are not afraid to take a stand against a fellow passenger they perceive as being a threat i.e., the hysterical flight attendant subdued before the plane had a chance to take off. I say that’s a better terrorist deterrent than any scanning procedure TSA can implement!

  • flutiefan

     just an FYI, the airline no longer flags the passenger when they meet those conditions.

  • flutiefan

    i wouldn’t necessarily say overspending, but i would certainly say that the money is being spent in the wrong places.

  • lockng1

    This is the first time I’ve contributed to this blog. I like the topics but as a regular old (!) flier, I am having trouble with understanding why everyone is so against the TSA. Granted, there are lots and lots of times they screwed up but the volume of people they scan and pass through every day is staggering and the odds are that something will happen. Wherever there’s a rule there will be someone who tries to figure out a way to break it. I think they could be more efficient and effective but what organization – even private ones – couldn’t you say the same about? Personally, I feel safer if I know there are people out there scanning for substances and weapons, even if a few get through. The odds are that a person who was passed through the scanning devices with a knife will not be a terrorist.

    As to the opinion that their screening devices should be better and they should stop wasting our money developing machines that aren’t effective, no argument there. But in the meantime at least there’s something used. A deterrent, as Sparky says.

    And whoever runs any organization will have some inefficiencies and waste. Unfortunately it’s the nature of the beast. I’m not sure what the alternatives to the TSA would be – another governing organization fraught with the same issues?

    Anyway, this just always seems like a TSA-bashing blog and I just want to state that I realize they aren’t the best but I feel they mostly do their jobs. And yes, I fly often and have been subjected to pat-downs, rude agents, etc.

  • Chasmosaur

    While I agree that the economic-loss policy doesn’t make sense for airport vendors – if anything, I’m sure the ones behind security have made a killing on beverage sales since the 3-1-1 rule was enacted – I don’t really agree with the rest of your argument.

    Saying TSA is a deterrent to airplane-based terrorist acts is like saying closed-circuit cameras and a security presence deter bank robberies – while they can deter the casual thief, those determined to rob the bank simply plan more efficiently.

    If a terrorist plot has made it to the point of execution, then TSA is not a deterrent and has been figured into the plans.  (See the recent excellent essay by an FBI Counterterrorism agent here – )  The screening is so haphazard in its execution – which can be confirmed using websites like – that it can be worked around.

    The US Security and Law Enforcement agencies – DNI, DHS, CIA, FBI and local law enforcement – simply don’t play well together.  Take Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (aka – The “Underwear Bomber”) for example.  He was listed on a Terrorist watch list at DNI, but it was never added to the FBI’s more hands-on “No Fly” or “Selectee” Lists.  Throw in the security branches of other countries – like the UK’s Home Office, which had Abdulmutallab on their “no fly” list – and it’s a cluster-f***.  (And that’s not even taking into account the theory that he was allowed on the plane through government/intelligence intervention.)

    Not to mention the No Fly List is riddled with false positives.  Ted Kennedy and Nelson Mandela were/are *such* obvious terrorist operatives, among the lesser publicized gaffes.  They have a child on the Selectee list.  ( ) There is NO profiling involved, or if there is, it’s of an exceedingly low quality. 

    “Effective 100% of the time or not, the perception of the machinery is reality.”

    No, that’s actually security theater.  Don’t buy into it.

    I’m not saying there shouldn’t be screening – there should be.  But not the way TSA is doing it.  There are more intelligent and effective models out there, but they are not being followed.  There is simply the throwing of money at the problem, as assisted by excellent lobbyists and political insiders.

  • naoma

    As a frequent flyer, small, blonde, not young, I am always hassled by the TSA.  I’ve come to expect it.  Have a lot of stories, but won’t repeat them.  Soon I’ll be flying to Paris and eagerly await my next “feel me” patdown, etc.  I am totally amazed we can wear our shoes.  After the “underwear guy” I was surprised we didn’t have to 
    take off our underwear!!  

  • naoma

    Chris, I eagerly await your story!

  • trskms

    So, basically, even if it is ineffective in reality, you don’t mind giving up your rights and being seen nude or manhandled, because the theater makes you feel better in your mind? I’m sorry, but that’s simply ridiculous. I don’t want to give up my Constitutional rights, and those of my children, to make you PERCEIVE that you’re safer.

  • trskms

    Ridiculous! The only people this kind of thing “deters” are the grandmas and grandpas who wouldn’t do anything anyway. No real terrorist cares a whit about this stupid security theater. Your assertion that “Many indeed are caught and/or deterred by the machines.” is based on what data? So far, the TSA has NEVER caught a terrorist, and has even (demonstrably) let a number through. So, you’re willing to give up your rights for absolutely NOTHING. That’s really sad.

  • MarkKelling

    The airport merchants have MADE Billions since the liquid restrictions have been put in place, not lost. 

    Before the ban, I would carry 3 – 4 bottles of water with me to drink at the airport or on the plane that I bought in bulk costing me about 25 cents each and usually not spend anything at the airport.  Now, if I want to carry water, I have to buy it at the airport past security and pay $2.50 each (sometimes more) for the exact same item.  Or bring empty bottles and fill them at a water fountain (not appealing to me).  Also, if anyone has a drink they don’t finish it has to be disposed of before going through security.  Wether the drink was bought at the airport or not, it is a loss to the purchaser when it has to be thrown out.  

  • MarkKelling

    To answer the question asked: NO we are not overspending on airport security.  But we are spending on the wrong things and calling it security.

    We should be spending to hire better, more intelligent, more trustworthy, people to do the screenings.  We should be spending on less intrusive scanning methods and better luggage checking equipment.  We should be spending to insure all cargo is checked.  We should shift spending to have more actual screeners and a lot less upper level management by bureaucrats only intent on making sure they have a job.  

  • RonBonner

    Chris, not mentioned in your article and I think an important point was that Congress mandated that TSA inspect 100% of all cargo loaded aboard passenger aircraft.  The required date to be doing this 100% inspection has come and gone, been pushed back by TSA, and to this day TSA is not in compliance with the United States Congress mandate. 

    Yet TSA seems to have all the resources, both human and financial, to electronically Strip Search ( if not an actual Strip Search as has been reported in some cases) people who use commercial air as a means to travel.

    There is a serious disconnect between what TSA is doing and the level of security this country needs. 

    The likelihood of a terrorist attack against commercial air is so remote that spending billions of tax dollars each year on failed TSA programs should be halted, reviewed by competent (that leaves out TSA) security experts, and only those acts that prove useful based on real intelligence continued.

    TSA under the current leadership of John S. Pistole is clearly a failed agency.  TSA has failed its employees and has failed the citizens of United States. 

    The time for changing course is at hand!

  • RonBonner

    Since TSA does not screen airport workers, vendors and others who have access to the so-called sterile areas of airports exactly how does screening just passengers really move the security ball forward?

    As far as the Whole Body Imagers, take a look at the TSA Weekly Capture stats published on the TSA Blog and tell us what items would have slipped through the x-ray and Walk Through Metal Detectors and if TSA hasn’t tossed them in the trash also, the Handheld Metal Detectors.

    I for one would like TSA to give us a little more return than a “Perception of Security” on the tax dollars they spend.

    How about you taking a look at just who is benefiting from the purchase of these expensive screening devices.  Look for names like Chertoff and other prior DHS/TSA executives.  These failed machines aren’t about security, they are about certain peoples pockets getting full of our tax dollars.

  • SoBeSparky

    As people love to quote unverified blogs and cute articles on the internet as facts, issues like this can never be discussed rationally.  Attributions to an FBI agent who challenges the TSA right up front, “I invite them to prove me wrong,” goes to show how verifiable and signifcant the source.  The other articles cited do not prove the point, but are tangential.  

    I suggest all these people who are certain that no terrorists ever were stopped by the TSA read this article:  It is a reasonable, as opposed to conspiratorial, approach to the subject.

    Will we ever know?  No.  Are guns and other weapons seized every week just short of being taken on an aircraft?  Yes.  Does this make us safer?  Yes, if you think having fewer offensive weapons on an airplane is a good thing.  

    Remember, it only took one person with one weapon to hijack an airplane to Cuba.  By any definition, this was an act of terrorism.  

  • ClareClare

    I’ve been obliged by the goons to throw away EMPTY clear plastic bottles–was told that even if it’s not containing any liquid, it’s potential content is greater than the 3-1-1 rules and so I can’t bring it into the secure area.

    Honest.  Could I make that up? 

    So even the option of filling up at an icky water fountain is removed…

  • Rose Arnold

    I can’t tell you how many times I wish your voting question had an “I don’t know” or “I need more information” or as in this case, “The question is over simplified” check box.  

  • ClareClare

    Sitting here at my kitchen table, at zero cost to US taxpayers, I just had an idea that could potentially revolutionize airport security AND save us zillions of dollars.
    Considering that the only wannabe post-9-11 airplane terrorists were apprehended onboard planes by honest, law-abiding PASSENGERS, I propose that we immediately do two things simultaneously:
    a) abolish the TSA; and
    b) publish a new policy, stating that a $1 million reward will be paid by the US govt to every airplane passenger who intervenes and thereby thwarts an attempted terrorist act. 
    The Dutch citizen who brought down the underwear-bomber, for example, should have been feted at the White House and cut a check.  Ditto those who tackled the shoe-bomber.
    I’d even grant these awards to those pax who subdued the wacky flight-attendant this week–although she wasn’t a terrorist, nobody quite knew what was going on and yet they nabbed her while thinking that she MIGHT have been.
    In this way, our American can-do mentality would be officially rewarded (while we also reward those non-Americans who do the same, of course!).  It would be like a “if you see something, SAY something” campaign, but on steroids. 
    And compared to current costs for false “security,” it would practically be free!
    See?  I am not a govt consultant, spending years designing expensive and complex (not to mention ineffective) federal policies.  It was just a casual exercise in common sense, that took about 5 minutes to complete.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Guilty as charged!

    I oversimplify almost every poll in an effort to get a “yes/no” answer. It also makes for a better discussion, sometimes.I don’t know the answer to today’s poll, or to the more nuanced rhetorical questions at the end. But the debate is interesting.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Good catch. I’ve revised the text to reflect that.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Thanks. I’ve added a line in the story about the missed deadline.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    These measures MAY be a deterrent, but Corbett proved that these measures actually don’t work. At all.

    There’s no need to read the rest of your rant, because your opening premise is flat out wrong.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    The TSA exists to make stupid people feel safer.

    They do not, in fact, make air travel any safer.

  • Carchar

    It’s not whether or not we are spending too much money, it’s that we are wasting it on completely ineffective methods. Use the money to hire intelligent people, paying them a respectable salary, and putting them through training in behavioral psychology, safe but effective screening technology and discerning, respectful  interviewing techniques,  Israeli style. 

  • lockng1

    Hmmm…I have been called stupid and ridiculous this morning for stating what I feel. So much for that.

  • Drontil

    Chris, you forgot the mention what was probably the TSA’s most serious blunder of all, the one that is being swept under the rug:
    C4 in a carry-on missed in Fayetteville.

    Pistole needs to be dragged onto the carpet in front of Congress and ordered to testify under oath as to how his highly-vaunted screeners allowed that to happen.

  • Christopher Elliott

    Good one. Added.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Those who post on are generally intelligent, thoughtful people.  When the subject of the TSA comes up, those posting are so caught up in their emotional response that ad hominem attacks become, unfortunately, regular events.  Reading through all the comments, I find interesting material and food for thought, whether or not I agree with the thoughts expressed. 
    Thank you for providing an alternate perspective.  I don’t agree with your post, but I respect your right to air your opinion.  Try not to let this one experience color your opinion about the site. 

  • AgentSteve

    The problem with your idea is that it is: too simple; makes too much sense; would abolish the TSA; would empower passengers’ would save money; requires virtually no training or equipment; would save the taxpayer’s money; would eliminate another aspect of the nanny state; would make it easier for passengers to travel; would allow for passengers to take their latte or bottle of water on board; would take control out of the hands of Congress; would allow for family and friends to say goodbye or welcome travelers at the gate; etc.

    Your critics will argue that empowering passengers would create a vigilante state of mind, especially if weapons were allowed on board.  Congress would argue that it is they are the sole authority, to manage airport security.  The Obuma ilk would argue that you are creating unemployment, by terminating TSA workers.

    And I think Clare, that while we all agree that the TSA has only contributed acrimony, inconvenience, spitefulness and a “better than thou” attitude and persona, little will change, until we have elected officials with a spine, who are welded to their campaign rhetoric and promises.

    From my experience, I can’t recall ever assessing a TSA agent as friendly, polite, courteous, considerate or lest I say, professional?  TSA was a reaction to a symptom; it does not solve the problem.  America has become too soft and spongy, when it comes to doing what’s necessary, to protect the people.  Our government has become a nanny state, where political correctness runs rampant.

    One can criticize many of the European and Asian countries, for the way they implement security.  Simply, they assess the overall threat and aren’t afraid to act first and ask questions later.

    Travel should be convenient and a pleasant experience.  Today, we dread going to the airport.  In some cases, you can literally drive between point A and point B, faster, cheaper and with no hassles, than you can fly.  If I want to fly from San Francisco to San Diego, a mere 1.5 hour flight, I still have to get to the airport two hours ahead of time; go through TSA; surrender my dignity to strangers (some of which are deviant misfit of society); throw away my shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, nail clippers, etc.; and let’s not forget the fighting for overhead bin space, the way our luggage is handled and the eternal carousel wait, once you arrive.  OK, so it’ll take me eight hours to drive, but at least I’m not spending my life’s savings on a flight and I can control my comfort, convenience and sanity.

    OK, Now I’m done!  Gee, somehow I feel so much better!  ;-)

  • SoBeSparky

    In these days of radio rants and bloggers writing authoritative and quotable “facts,” many would be better off taking a college-level logic course before telling us about “proofs.”

    Showing a body scanner being foiled by a side pocket with a small metal case, Corbett did not “prove(d) that these measures actually don’t work.  At all.”  He showed that a small metal container strategically sown into underwear may slip through security.  Do they work generally? Of course. Don’t work at all? Nah.

    The TSA is not the all-right or all-wrong situation most make it to be.  While Elliott and others continually claim that the TSA has done nothing right, one must wonder why they make such wide sweeping unsubstantiated statements.  Yes, 1% or more of weapons may get through, but the TSA has the records of the dozens of weapons and prohibited objects seized every week.  Is the screening 100% effective?  No. 

    Please tell me, just how will independently hired security personnel, employees of different firms at each airport and separately trained and equipped, make the screening 100% effective?  Corbett advocates this, but states no reasons why independently hired contractors at each airport, or even by different companies at each security check point, will make us safer.  Corbett then even mixes the “fast and furious” Mexican guns fiasco into the TSA security screening mix in the same video!  Huh?  

    I just am taken aback about false logic, fake proofs formed by opinions of a single person with no external research, and other such techniques.  Quoting self-appointed experts from the internet continues on every site it seems, with more and more specious arguments going unchallenged.  Corbett has a valid point, but then goes on to blow it with his other assertions.

    He claims because sometimes ineffectual body scanners are in place, the TSA should be abolished and replaced with private contractors.  Huh?  There’s a leap of logic.  

    Who determines the equipment these proposed private contractors will use?  The private sector?  Like the same military-industrial-complex which has brought us the bloated military budget?  The US defense budget is 43% of the entire world’s expenditures for arms and the military.  The next highest is China at 7.3%  Does this make you feel safer?  Does this make you feel our military spending is wise and efficient?

    While Corbett keeps citing $8 billion for TSA, think about the $698 billion spent on our national defense, ouor worldwide security.  When was the last war we “won?”  

    Everyone has fun tearing down the TSA day in and day out, but who is doing anything constructive?  There are two issues, machinery and personnel.  Better machinery is needed.  No question.  But having dozens of rent-a-cop companies, responsible to their shareholders to make a profit, do all the screening doesn’t make much sense to me.  

    After the complete lack of business ethics led us into this current economic debacle, how can people say, “Trust the private, for-profit sector with our national security.”

  • AgentSteve

    Sorry, but somehow for decades, we seemed to do quite well without the TSA.  I’ll accept that the TSA was thrown together in response to 9/11.  However, don’t you think they’ve had enough time to get it right?  If they were a publicly traded company, their stock would be worth zero and they would have been bankrupt, a long time ago.  Yes, our world has changed and technology has been good and also misused.  The bottom line is to defend and protect against the problem, not against the symptoms.

  • scapel

    Why wouldn’t the metal show up if the person was made to turn sideways at a right angle.
    I have always said it is not what people are carrying as much as it is what people are doing the carryig. Background checks of all passengers? Wow–there is a computer test.

  • Lisa Simeone
  • Lisa Simeone

    I, too, think the privatizing argument is bullsh*t.  Private sector goons bullying and groping people are no better than public sector goons doing it.  Ditto for the “education” argument.  Well-educated thugs are no better than poorly educated ones.

    As for expert opinion and empirical evidence, there’s tons of it out there, much of it we have quoted and quoted and re-quoted on this blog and elsewhere.  Bruce Schneier, Rafi Sela, Clark Ervin, Richard Roth, Stephen M. Lord, to name a few, have been for years debunking the TSA and its overpriced security theater (apologies to actual actors, directors, designers, and other artists who do actual work in actual theaters).

    And for the umpteenth time, no bombs were brought onto planes on 9/11. The planes themselves were commandeered, something that won’t happen again because the cockpit doors have been secured, and because passengers will no longer silently submit (which is more than I can say for TSA apologists).

    The last time a bomb smuggled aboard an airplane in the USA detonated was December 11, 1967. The plane landed safely; no fatalities, no injuries.

    The last time a bomb was smuggled aboard an aircraft in the US from which there were fatalities was May 22, 1962.

    Almost 50 years. And for all that time, until just recently, the TSA reign of molestation and rank stupidity didn’t exist. Gee, how is it possible we all haven’t been blown out of the sky by now? After all, The Terrorists Are Everywhere!

    You’re more likely to drown in your bathtub, get struck by lightning, have a fatal allergic reaction to peanuts, or be killed in a car accident than to be killed in a terrorist attack in this country.  So stop driving, stop bathing, stop going outdoors, and stay home cowering under the bed. The rest of us have lives to lead.

  • Chasmosaur

    So you’re linking to a half-page article written by Slate’s “Ask the Explainer” that actually points out that the TSA SPOT program was considered a failure.  And that TSA presence is most likely no more a deterrent than pre-TSA private security.

    You’re correct: that article is a completely ringing endorsement of TSA policy.

  • TonyA_says

    The alternative to the TSA is to give it back to the airlines and airports. Yes, they are not perfect (neither is the TSA); but I can bet they will be a lot cheaper. Might save the taxpayer more than a few bucks.

  • TonyA_says

    Not to worry, I will feel the same way when I go through the image scanner.

  • SoBeSparky

    Why the sarcasm?  Why must everyone insist on absolutes: black or white, all right or all wrong?  

    I do not maintain the TSA is as effective as it could be, or efficient, or money well spent.  No machine and no agency is perfect, and certainly not the TSA.  However those who maintain we would be better off with private rent-a-cops using today’s technologies are not thinking this through.  Work to change this agency, not to destroy it.  

  • SoBeSparky

    I was referring back to October 2011 when FlyerTalk frequent flyers reported it still happening.  I have no reports since then of the infamous “SSSS.”

  • TSAisTerrorism

    You bring in a lot of external nonsense to dispute Corbett’s success.

    At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. Corbett went through not one, but 2, both of them different, body scanners, exploiting a KNOWN weakness. Oh, but it was just a metal case! What if it was a metal case with PETN?

    And don’t forget that Corbett was only replicating an already successful test. A test that TSA itself ran on these machines, and failed.

    Not once. Not twice. FIVE TIMES. A 100% failure rate:

  • Outland10

    No more blank checks for expensive props for security theater. Walkthrough metal detectors and canine patrols would be good enough. End the scope and grope yesterday.

  • SoBeSparky

    Lisa, does anyone have constructive suggestions?  Why would we spend thousands of hours tearing down our internal security without a few hours of effort on improving it?

  • Sommer Gentry

    I can tell you why I am so against the TSA.

    As an American, I value the guarantees of our Constitution and my natural rights as a human being not to be accosted and treated like a criminal when I have given no one any reason to be suspicious of me.  When I learned about the Fourth Amendment in school, my teachers and parents taught me that our government needs a warrant or probable cause to search people.  What I see is the TSA eroding a fundamental American value – we don’t search innocent people.  To see the TSA frisking six-year-old girls and putting upstanding citizens in surrender poses makes me sick.  The TSA is an anti-American organization bent on destroying us and our rights.

    Beyond the American values argument, people are angry at TSA because of the strong emotional content and sexual domination signaling of physical intrusions into our clothing and the sexual areas of our bodies.  I understand that to some people, a stranger’s hand on their testicles or breasts may be no big deal.  However, to me, and to many other people, these are special, reserved areas only to be touched by someone we trust immensely.  I do not make a habit of letting strangers fondle my breasts.  I see no reason why I should let strangers fondle my breasts a hundred times per year just because I need to fly for work.

    The TSA makes people less safe, because being traumatized and feeling violated is a harm.  When the TSA harms people, it is doing the opposite of protecting them.  The TSA also makes people more vulnerable to terrorist attacks and other dangers than they would be without the TSA, as I wrote about here:  When there are present harms and no benefits, it’s not hard to see why people are adamant about getting rid of the TSA.

  • Sommer Gentry

    I’m scheduling another protest at my airport (BWI has lots of restrictions on free speech) and my plan for next time is this: At a table marked “How to sneak anything past a body scanner”, I’ll provide people with fabric and sewing materials to add hidden pockets to their clothing so they too can sneak anything they like onto the plane.  I’ll prominently feature Bloghdad Bob’s official TSA response to Jonathan Corbett’s video: “We never said they (body scanners) were the end all be all.” 

    I wonder what the airport police and TSA screeners will think of a how-to tutorial on beating body scanners located in the hall outside the checkpoint.

  • Jonathan Corbett

    lol Sommer I love it! :)

  • Chasmosaur

    I’m sarcastic because you called Jeffrey Goldberg’s 2008 Atlantic article – where he demonstrated how easy it was at that time for a person to print out a fake boarding pass on their own computer, and get through a TSA checkpoint using that and no picture ID – a “cute article on the Internet”.  I was responding to your perceived sarcasm. 

    In order to change the state of transportation security, one of the things we need as a society is for TSA’s failings need to be exposed by reputable media.  Like The Atlantic. Because TSA and DHS absolutely will NOT do it on their own.

    And as for “private rent-a-cops”?  Stop the hyperbole. Before TSA, airport security may have been private and chosen by individual airport authorities, but they were under FAA oversight.  So instead of federal employees, they were basically federal contractors.  And I’m guessing they probably had to jump through many more hoops and provide far more qualified employees than the current crop of TSO’s.  Who can respond to ads placed on pizza boxes.

    (And a point in fact?  The box cutters used by the 9/11 terrorists were totally legit to carry before then.  Private security didn’t fail – they let through a permitted personal item that wasn’t considered dangerous.)

    The problem is – as I stated in my original reply – the state of US Intelligence/Security/Law Enforcement.  I have a few friends in various levels of the involved federal agencies, and they say the same – that no one wants to share info, and it creates large gaps.  To use a non-TSA example to illustrate the holes in our national security and border patrol policy, all you have to do is google “Andrew Speaker”.

    Large security issues simply cannot be stopped by federally funded pizza box rent-a-cops. Once someone willing to cross a border or board a plane is in a position to do so (and willing to die for the cause of it), they will find a way.  So you need to stop them BEFORE they get to the airport.

    The rest is, indeed, security theater, whether it’s TSO’s or private firms.  The authors of the theater are in DC (or probably Arlington, who knows right now) – and those guys are much harder to disenfranchise.

  • Jonathan Corbett

    Thanks for covering, Chris!  A few responses to the commenters:

    1) The nude body scanners are no longer a deterrant (assuming they ever were).  You can literally get anything — firearm, knives, explosives, or just a flask of your favorite scotch — through the body scanners now.  But, even before my video, everyone knew a determined person could hide anything they want in a body cavity.  Do you really think someone who’s about to kill themselves with a suicide bomb has a problem with storing something in their ass?  Prisoners do it daily.  The fact of the matter is that with any of the above techniques, or any other techniques of which I’m aware, you can’t get a gun through a metal detector.  The body scanners are a step back for security, not forward.

    2) You can’t logistically fix the problem simply by taking a side image.  You would end up taking twice as long to screen every passenger (Want to double staff from 60K to 120K?  Buy twice as many scanners?), subject every passenger to twice the radiation dose, and have twice the opportunity for false positives.  Current false positive rate is about 40%, and new false positive rate would be 64%.  At that rate, two-thirds of passengers are getting a pat-down anyway.  Might as well just give everyone a pat-down.

    3) Regarding privatizing, here’s where I’m coming from.  First, I know that privatizing security means that if there is a problem, I can vote with my money.  An airline decides to have abusive screeners?  Fly another airline that cares.  Second, I do believe (and as best I know, there is little argument showing otherwise) that we can do private security for less money than government security.  Third, as a political preference, I prefer my government to be as small as possible.  A 60,000 employee agency to secure airports is absolutely absurd, and ends up being full of waste (see point #2).  Fourth, in having sued the TSA, I can tell you that they hide behind immunity that is only availabe to the government, whereas private companies would be more easily brought to justice for abuse.


  • Carver Clark Farrow II


  • Sommer Gentry

    Here’s one: the TSA should stop relying on security by obscurity.  Hiding the flaws in one’s security setup makes the system far less secure than revealing them does!  Only when every aspect of every security measure the TSA employs is 100% transparent to the public will we be able to assure ourselves that the system has value. 

    This is how computer security works: the most secure systems are the open ones, because they’ve withstood lots of testing.  If you’re hoping to stay safe because you think no one knows how easy it is to break your system, that’s when you’re in the most danger.

    Stop keeping secrets!  In particular, the fact that the screening procedures are hidden from passengers creates an unacceptable power differential in which passengers can’t protect themselves from screeners’ mistakes or screeners’ malicious abuse.  As things are now, passengers must give a blank check to the TSA to do anything and everything to our bodies and our belongings, because the TSA won’t tell us what we’re consenting to but they say we can’t withdraw from screening.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    Its too late.  If you are anything other than 100 percent anti-TSA you are a TSA apologist who has surrendered your rights. 

  • Sommer Gentry

    To be fair, some of us did respond in the spirit in which you posted.  You seemed to be genuinely curious about why people are upset and want to end the TSA.  I tried to answer the question from my perspective.

  • Christopher Elliott

    I would hope that we can be respectful of each others’ opinions on this site. I wouldn’t consider myself “pro” or “anti” TSA — I’m just a skeptic who loves tabloid headlines and oversimplified polls.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    You really cannot recall A TSA agent a friendly or polite. I am amazed as the overwhelming majority of agents I meet are friendly and polite.  Perhaps its airport dependent.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II


    As one of the few posters who is not anti-TSA I want to thank you for your kind remarks to lockkng1.

  • SoBeSparky

    There is nothing “external” about Corbett’s advocacy in his video, wanting to put our national security in the hands of the same capitalist mindsets who brought us the mortgage meltdown, the bank bailout, and imposition of consumer bank fees to pay for the sins of their investment banking and commercial mortgage businesses.  As long as the rent-a-cops #1 priority is return on investment to shareholders, we know where their ultimate loyalties lay. 

    Technologies are far different today than pre-9/11.  Machines which work will be needed.  Who develops them?  At what cost?  The military-industrial-complex will save us again?  You can preach trashing the TSA, but you must have a better model for national transportation security than has been suggested so far.  Or perhaps you just want to let open the security gates at the airports and declare laissez faire.  The market system will self regulate.  No more government interference.  

  • AgentSteve

    I would agree that “locality” of TSA employees might make a bit of a difference; however, my experiences have been less than favorable.  I have found that most have a “power” attitude and are condescending.  The stages involved with flying continue to become more and more challenging; getting through TSA is the most anxious aspect of all.

  • Thak Ferimatten

    We’ve paid billions and billions of dollars to those jackasses to figure out a solution that does a reasonably good job while not degrading and demeaning passengers, nor depriving them of their rights and dignity. Strip searching people and feeling their private parts is not what we pay these people money for.  Those kinds of solutions are wrong and illegal from the get-go.

    I don’t have to figure out a solution. That is their job. they’ve figured out a non-solution.

  • SoBeSparky

    “Vote with my money” is a horrid thought and absurd solution if there is a “lapse” and a terrorism incident occurs in the air.

    It is a long established public purpose of government to handle law enforcement and security, going back to the militia before the Revolutionary War.  It was the Brits, you might recall, who hired the mercenaries and privatized the Revolutionary War for their side.

    When it comes down to a private security manager choosing between additional profit/bonus and additional security, what is the decision made by a profit-driven contractor?  Human greed is the normal condition, not some aberration, as proven over and over in history.  That is why capitalism, as a natural system, works so well.

    Also, the “solution” of trashing the TSA does not address who develops the mechanization necessary to process people effectively and efficiently in protecting our transportation systems.  We have absolutely no reason to suspect better results from the private security machinery sector than when they develop under-performing and over-cost military systems today.  There is no easy answer.

    The same smaller-government-is-better people are crying for the repeal of the Dodd-Frank Act while those pensioners (and those who were soon-to-be) lost billions of dollars in the aggregate and are living hand to mouth.  How can memories be so short as to what happens when the profit motive gets in the way of an altruistic objective, such as protection of retirement capital for the elderly?  In the 2000s the retirement funds were invested in AAA safe investments, only to find that greed and capitalism reduced these bonds to mere waste paper.  

    Apparently, these small government people cannot even remember four or five years back as to how so many lost so much through no fault of their own.  They no longer can “vote with my money” as they have none.

    And people who take public transport and who suffer from a lapse in security administered by private for-profit firms cannot vote with anything.  They are vaporized.

    Capitalism does not self-regulate when we are protecting our people and our country.  It is the responsibility of the people’s government, always has been and always should be.  It cannot be delegated.

  • Thak Ferimatten

    So, before we can criticize, we must provide a better model that TSA’s come up with?  Let’s extend that reasoning to objections to jailers beating inmates in prison. We have to come up with a better way to do jail security before we can object to such inhuman and illegal behavior?

    Obviously not. Obviously we don’t have to solve the whole jail security ssue before demanding that such beatings cease immediately.  What’s wrong is simply wrong. Strip searching people and feeling up their private areas without cause is simply wrong. Stop the damage and do something else. It’s YOUR JOB, TSA, to come up with something that doesn’t p*ss off everyone subjected to it.

  • Lisa Simeone

    SoBeSparky, Yes. I’ll repeat what I’ve said so many times in the past:  

    Police work. Intelligence. The same things that have always been used to fight crime.

    And the above-mentioned securing of the cockpit doors and passengers not rolling over and submitting.

    The work that has to be done to nab actual terrorists (as opposed to sad sacks, disaffected loners, and the mentally ill) has to be done way, way before he/she gets to an airport. 

    Bullying, stripping, and groping people isn’t making us any safer.  It’s just bullying, stripping, and groping. Confiscating scary scissors, terrifying tweezers, contraband cupcakes, insulin, and breast milk isn’t making anybody any safer.

    And again, nobody was getting scanned and pawed before the Reign of Molestation was implemented in 2010, yet planes weren’t dropping out of the sky left and right.

    Obviously, somebody could kill a lot more people just by detonating an explosive in the checkpoint line itself. Or in a concourse à la Moscow’s Domodedovo. Or in the parking garage. Or at the curb. Do we scan and paw everyone  at the entrance? On the ramp leading from the highway to the airport? Where does it stop?

  • Thak Ferimatten

    I could care less about the money.  I care a great deal that I must submit to some trogolodyte goon of a human being demanding that I be seen without my clothing (backscatter AIT) or let him caress my buttocks and genitals.  That isn’t passenger screening, that is a prison intake process that NONE of us have merited by our conduct. We haven’t broken the law.

  • TonyA_says

    The problem is your logic is it’s also faulty because it only looks at one side of the coin. Your assumption is screening will deter would be bombers. The problem is two fold:
    (1) Screening also deters would be travelers – innocent people.
    (2) Real bombers who are willing to offer their lives are probably smarter than the TSA and will find a way to harm us in more ways that we can think about.

    I’m particular concerned with the first problem – the hassling of  millions of innocent passengers. My proposed solution is to simply go back to the pre-911 airport security. The cockpit doors are secured and all Americans I know are willing to duke it out with any terrorist or misfit on board an aircraft.

    Solving the second problem needs good intelligence and a vigilant public. I suppose the CIA, FBI and local law enforcement is a lot better in doing this job than the TSA.

    Finally, for Pete’s sake, the shoe and underwear bombers were foreigner “losers” in real life. The easiest way to prevent the problem, is not to issue visas to losers and to prevent them from coming here (even if they are from non-visa countries).

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    Most are, some are not.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    It is truly amazing how different people have different experiences.  My experiences with TSA across the country has been mostly excellent.  As recently as Wednesday at LAX, the x-ray machine broke.  The TSA agents scrambled to get the bags scanned at a different machine while we went through the metal detector at the original machine

  • Carver Clark Farrow II


    You are always gracious in your posts and responses.  It is greatly appreciated.

  • mike gordon

    $200,000 times 600 scanners = $120 million. This is still a lot of money, although maybe not for the federal government. But it is 10 percent of $1.2 billion.

  • Christopher Elliott

    You’re right. I was linking to another blog, which had the information wrong. I’ve revised the paragraph and am now linking to a GAO study.

  • RonBonner

    Just out of personal curiosity do you have any ties to government, DHS or TSA?

  • Jonathan Corbett

    There’s more cost beyond the cost of the device.  Think training, staffing, and Blogger Bob’s salary. ;)

  • Christopher Elliott

    True, and so noted. But Blogger Bob is worth every penny the TSA pays him. ;-) And I know you’re reading this, Bob. Don’t worry, your job is safe.

  • Susan J. Barretta

    Jon Corbett’s experiment validated the opinions reflected in a two year old article in the UK Telegraph 3-Jan-2010 by Jane Merrick: 

    “Are planned airport scanners just a scam? New technology that Gordon Brown relies on for his response to the Christmas Day bomb attack has been tested – and found wanting”

  • Lisa Simeone

    SoBeSparky, for the record, I’m a longtime lefty. I’m not a “smaller government is always better” person. Frankly, I’d describe myself as a socialist. I believe that, without some checks, capitalism eats everyone and everything alive.

    I’d like to see something for my tax dollars, including public transportation, financial regulatory oversight, environmental protection, etc.

    But I don’t want to see money wasted on abusive garbage like the TSA. And I don’t want to see our civil liberties shredded. 

    We have repeated over and over the fact that planes weren’t being blown out of the sky left and right with the old, ordinary methods of walk-through metal-detector and occasional wanding.  We don’t need bullying, intimidating, stripping, pawing, and groping to be safe.

  • Lisa Simeone

    As the famous experiments of Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram demonstrated over 40 years ago, people put in positions of unlimited power will abuse that power. It’s not a question of “if,” it’s a question of “when.”

  • TSAisTerrorism

    An unreported figure is the retrofits the airports have to undergo to make room for these monstrous, ineffective pieces of junk. 

    I don’t have the figure handy, but some airports are each spending around a million each just to relocate merchants and centralize checkpoints so the TSA has room for these fancy new contraptions. Those numbers drastically inflate the cost of this junk, and obviously the TSA would rather that data not be known.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    And Jon’s experiment only exploited one of the many known weaknesses in this method of screening. TSA’s response appears to be to do a post-scan groping of all scanees. How cute. They’re still missing other obvious holes.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    I don’t know if they’re overspending but I’m certain they’re spending the money on the wrong things. The problem with huge bureaucracies like the TSA and even our Congress is they don’t function with any common sense. Find a handful of security experts and tell them to defend an airport like their families would be traveling through their on a regular basis and we’d have a much more secure situation without any of the useless hassles of the TSA.

  • Chasmosaur

    SoBeSparky asked for constructive fixes to the problems – here’s my take on it:

    While I don’t think the concept of DHS was a bad idea, it’s been poorly executed.  If they were trying to make something equivalent to the UK’s Home Office, they failed, since that includes the equivalent of US agencies like the FBI, DEA and US Marshals. The US intelligence community is also inefficient and producing so much information that it can’t all be reviewed.  (See – )

    So the first thing that needs to happen is a hard look at DHS, Law Enforcement and Intelligence.  The Intelligence community alone is far too spread out –

    Communication is grossly inefficient, and systems that are supposed to be integrated simply aren’t.  (Again, as I stated somewhere earlier, the “Underwear” bomber was on DNI’s “watch list”, but that information never made to the FBI, who maintains the “no-fly” and “selectee” list that are supposed to check airline ticket purchases.)  Once you have intelligence being shared productively, then there’s a better chance terrorists can be stopped before they even get to the airport, which is the ideal situation.

    That, however, is a larger issue.  When it comes to TSA?  I think that it should go to USDOT.  The FAA had oversight over US airport security previous to TSA – so they didn’t hire, but they did issue guidelines for the security that airport authorities could not over-ride.  Before 9/11, they actually did a decent job – hijackings originating from US soil had become non-existent since the 1980’s.  And the box-cutters that the 9/11 hijackers used?  Those were allowed, so there was no failure.  (Remember, first class actually had cutlery back in the day – a box cutter could be used to equal effect as a knife capable of cutting meat.)

    The failure there was in intelligence, not logistics/operations. Remember, there had been intelligence that Middle Eastern terror groups were planning on a major act of sabotage involving a plane for several years.  The powers-that-were decided that it was ludicrous or too far off into the future, so no immediate action was taken.  (They were thinking that the pilot training systems in their home countries weren’t advanced enough, and that it would be a traditional hijacking, where the passengers were hostages, not part of the damage to be inflicted.)  If the FAA never knew about these (I can’t remember if they did), then how could airport security or airlines adjust their own security appropriately?

    So I think Transportation Security should go to USDOT oversight, with airport security staffing to be a mix of actual LEO’s and better trained screeners who meet more than a “can you stand on your feet and lift heavy bags?” as a qualification.  And they should receive a briefing on transportation-related security that would allow them to provide adequate security that allows for a balance freedom of movement, security screening and no 4th Amendment violations.

    They also would have to follow government procedure and go through a public comment period before adding things like AIT. Because if they reside outside of the intelligence community, then they can’t hide behind “national security” to force things on the traveling public.  And the public can then decide whether or not they think things like pat-downs and AIT are necessary to the regular screening process.

    USDOT actually has a vested interest in keeping transportation moving and safe.  I sometimes think DHS would be happy if no one traveled at all.  It would certainly make their job easier, as they prefer to obstruct, not protect.  So give transportation security operations to the people who are actually experts in transportation.

    Oh – and seriously?  Have a Disney consult.  They know how to move huge amounts of people efficiently and politely.  I’m not saying we need characters at the checkpoints, but there has to be a better way to sort people. ;)

  • Lisa Simeone

    Engineer and statistical analyst Bill Fisher crunched the numbers here:

  • Lisa Simeone

    I’m going to repeat what I’ve said so many times:  enough with the shibboleth about Israeli security. Bombs still go off in Israel, just not on planes.

    Buses, cafes, marketplaces — bombs still go off there. The Israelis have learned to accept that risk. They don’t expect 100% security, because 100% security is a fantasy.  A childish, dangerous fantasy.

    The fact that so many Americans believe this fantasy is why they’re willing to bend over and spread ’em every time an authority figure tells them to.

    Again, you’re more likely to be killed in a car accident — 35,000 traffic fatalities every year in this country — than to be killed in a terrorist attack.  

    Enough already with the fear-mongering. Flying is still far, far safer than driving. And more people are driving to avoid the TSA. Which means more people are dying because of the TSA.

    The TSA not only isn’t doing sh*t at the airport to keep us safe. It’s actually causing more people to die. Mathematician Sommer Gentry has done the statistical analysis:

  • Barry Graham

    Thanks for releasing this video.  We need security like in Israel, not shams that make a few nervous wrecks feel good and merely inconvenience the rest of us including non-threatening people like us.

  • Carchar

    So, what you are telling me is that Israeli aviation security is a waste of time. Except that Israeli agents CAN point out times when they’ve prevented terrorists from going on planes. 

    I happen to disagree with you about Israeli-type security, having experienced it several times, even in times of war. They have several respectful “conversations” with every passenger. Their security agents are intelligent and very well trained. They screen every piece of baggage, but they don’t feel the need to resort to x-rated methods to do their jobs. No one seems to think the Israeli government is fear-mongering. 

    Do they take homicide bombers in stride? Yes. It is a way of life for them, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to prevent more deaths.

    I don’t see why their methods can’t work for us. 

  • TonyA_says

    You just said why – they recruit (or draft)  intelligent people.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Carchar, no, I didn’t say that Israeli aviation security is a waste of time. I said bombs still go off in Israel.  And that there’s no such thing as 100% security, which Americans want to believe in.

    Furthermore, Israeli security works great if you’re the “right” kind of person. They rely heavily on racial and ethnic profiling. If you’re an American with a tour group, you’ll be ushered quickly through. If you’re the “wrong” racial or ethnic type, you’ll get a thorough going-over.  And if you’re a peace activist, forget it — you’ll get strip-searched in a back room. Just ask Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein:    

  • Lisa Simeone

    See comments on Israeli security further down-thread.

  • cjr001

    TSA’s track record speaks for itself.

  • Reuven Avram

    Every extra screener is a security risk. As an Israeli who lives in the United States, I’d rather have the model of a smaller number of very highly trained people. They don’t make me take off my belt and shoes at Ben Gurion airport; I get a magnetometer, often a sniff from a dog, and a little 3-minute interview from someone who’s actually intelligent.

    TSA agents can be bribed for $200, as this story at Shiny Badge shows:

  • Erica Richardson

    Any update?