Expert: TSA Screening Is Security Theater


TSA Head Disputes Claim, Tells 60 Minutes Measures Are Necessary Because "This
Is A War"

Dec. 21, 2008

(CBS) If you’re one of the millions heading home for the holidays by airplane,
you may be dreading the long lines and intrusive searches that a trip through
an airport checkpoint can mean these days.

Since 9/11, $40 billion has been spent to beef up airport security, with most
of it going to hire 50,000 screeners who enforce rules often considered annoying
and arbitrary.

Travelers feel so hassled by the screeners that their bosses at TSA, the Transportation
Security Administration, have launched an image makeover and a public relations
campaign to convince the public that there’s a good reason for the inconveniences
and indignities.

Go to a checkpoint and you’ll find passengers bellyaching about the undressing,
the unbuckling, and the taking off of their shoes – which they don’t have to
do in Europe or even Israel, where airline security is especially tight.

There’s a lot of stress, and griping about having to pack their little liquids
into baggies. They resent that each and every traveler is treated like a possible
terrorist, even little old ladies.

When correspondent Lesley Stahl asked Kip Hawley, the outgoing head of TSA,
if all this is really necessary, he wanted us to know that the terrorist threat
has not gone away.

“This is war. These people are trying to kill us. They got on the planes
in September 11th, 2001, killed 3,000 people. And they will do it again as many
times as they can,” Hawley said.

“There’s been a lot of criticism about people who clearly are not terrorists.
The 90-year-old little old lady. …My mother, in fact…was patted
down, and pulled aside. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not common sense,”
Stahl remarked.

“You can’t say to al Qaeda, ‘If you give us somebody who looks like they’re
90 years old or nine months old, you’re going to get a free pass.’ Because I
guarantee you, they are watching. They notice it. And that’s where they’ll come,”
Hawley warned.

It’s on the TSA’s “watch floor” that analysts track thousands of
flights, especially when there is a passenger on board that TSA suspects has
links to terrorist groups.

At the time of Stahl’s visit, Hawley said the analysts were tracking two such
individuals in the air, fully aware which aircraft they were traveling on. “And
we know what they were carrying with them. We know the whole scoop. Do they
know? Maybe not,” Hawley said. “And I think the public doesn’t realize
that this is for real. And that this happens every day.”

But the TSA has a record of tracking and stopping innocent passengers, which
has contributed to the agency’s overall credibility problem. In focus groups,
travelers questioned the TSA’s ability to keep us safe and also complained about
“pointless” security measures and rude and incompetent screeners.

“We’re not out there to be fake security guards,” said Ladonta Edwards,
who like Gary Wilkes works at a Washington D.C. area airport.

They say screeners feel the public’s hostility every day. Wilkes said he had
never had anybody throw something specifically at him, but has seen objects

Passengers can be so surly, screeners feel abused and frazzled.

The TSA is sending every one of its 50,000 screeners back for retraining in
how to treat the flying public. But from what 60 Minutes heard about how the
public treats them, it’s no wonder these guys need anger management.

“You hear, ‘Well, I have a flight to catch. Hurry up. Do this, do that.’
You know, you’re taking your time to be nice and courteous to them, because
that’s your job, and they don’t appreciate it,” one screener told Stahl.

“Sometimes it can be so paralyzing, you can’t do anything. You just want
to bury your head somewhere,” another said.

“The perception is we yell back. We scream. We get in combative mode.
We’re ready to fight,” Ladonta Edwards commented.

“You’re human!” Stahl pointed out.

“What do we do to change that perception?” Edwards asked.

“We’re teaching people not to react to their emotions. Actually smile,
still be pleasant, and send your positive emotions to that individual,”
Gary Wilkes added.

The price tag for all this retraining is $35 million. Then there are the new
police-style uniforms to give the screeners a more authoritative look. It’s
all meant to help screeners deal with the challenges of the job.

“What’s the most bizarre thing that you’ve seen someone put in their carry
on and go through the screener?” Stahl asked.

“I can tell you the most bizarre [thing] that has gone through the x-ray
machine. Passengers that have actually by mistake sent pets through and children,
by accident,” Wilkes said. “We…actually had to put signs on
the machine….’Don’t put your children through the x-ray machines.'”

“Infants in the carriers, they just take the whole carrier in, send it
through,” Edwards added.

But the question is: is everything we go through at checkpoints actually making
us safer? Security expert Bruce Schneier says no. He says much of it is just
“security theater.”

“It’s a phrase I coined for security measures that look good, but don’t
actually do anything,” he explained.

Schneier, an adviser to TSA but also its most persistent thorn-in-the-side,
says there are too many silly rules.

Take the baggies for liquids, which became a rule in 2006 when British authorities
uncovered a plot to bring liquid bombs on board airliners headed for the U.S.:
Schneier says the liquid limits may make us feel safe, but do little to stop

“If you try to bring a bottle of liquid onto an airplane, a screener’s
going to a see it, look at it, say, ‘Oh, look, it’s a bottle of liquid,’ toss
it over her shoulder into a trash can,” he said.

Schneier said they don’t test those tossed bottles. “They’re not even
scared of it. They put it in a trash can right next to them. That’s where
it stays all day. Alright, let’s say I want to smuggle a liquid on an airplane.
I go through airport security. If they catch me, I go around and go through
again. If they catch me, I go round and go through again. I can do it 100, 1,000
– I can do it all day till I get it through. So because it’s not treated as
dangerous, there’s no point in taking it away.”

“But the British police did uncover a plot to use liquids. So you’ve eliminated
something….You’ve put it off the table….That can’t be bad,”
Stahl said.

“It’s not bad. The question is, is it good?” Schneier questioned.
“If there are 1,000 ways to blow up an aircraft and you get rid of one,
you’re a little bit safer. If you spend, I’m making this up, $10 million to
do that, are you $10 million safer? Probably not.”

How about $160 million safer? That’s what TSA is spending each year on more
than 2,000 “behavior detection officers.” They prefer to remain anonymous
as they roam checkpoints, examining micro-facial expressions, looking for signs
of nervousness or anxiety. TSA claims it can help spot a terrorist.

“I have come crashing into airports, all agitated cause I’m late
or whatever. Wouldn’t they pick me out too?” Stahl asked Kip Hawley.

“No, because you’re normal. Everybody that comes to an airport is
behind and is tense and is anxious, and ‘Am I going to miss my flight?'”
Hawley said.

Hawley said the behavior detection officers can tell if someone is anxious
over missing a flight or anxious over carrying a bomb.

But Bruce Schneier said there’s not a lot of truth in that. “But they’d
love it if you reported it, because, you know, in all seriousness, we are safer
if the bad guys believe we’ve got this piece of magic.”

60 Minutes asked TSA if any of the 180,000 passengers stopped by the behavior
officers for an interview turned out to be a terrorist. They wouldn’t tell us,
but congressional sources said no.

Now Congress is asking TSA for proof that all these expensive security measures
are working, because it turns out that, despite rigorous training, screeners
continue to miss things that government inspectors smuggle through the checkpoints.

“Nineteen airports were looked at and IEDs got through,” Stahl told

“IED components…in some cases,” he said.

“But why do I hear a 60, 70 percent failure rate?” Stahl asked.

“I don’t know,” Hawley replied.

“You don’t know what that number is?” Stahl asked.

“I don’t know what…I’d have to go look at that report,” he

“You can’t tell me, can you?” Stahl asked. “That you have a
chart that shows failure rates going down like that?”

“Well, I can tell you that our results have improved. Knives and guns
do not present a huge problem for us now. We’re very, very good at those. And
completed IEDs, we’re very good at those. The small pieces, we have to continue
to work to get at even the smallest pieces of an IED,” he said.

TSA’s solution has been to invest even more money in checkpoints, adding a
new layer of state-of-the-art technology, like $200,000 advanced x-ray machines
that highlight suspicious objects for the screeners in red boxes.

There’s also technology to put an end to one of the most intrusive – some say
creepy – procedures: wanding or the pat-down. It’s the whole body imager, which
has been nicknamed “the peeper” because it sees through our clothes
searching for bombs.

When privacy groups raised a fuss about the government “seeing us naked,”
TSA cut back on the program.

Kip Hawley wants travelers to know that the only place the images are ever
seen is inside a locked, windowless room. The machine automatically blurs the
face so the operator doesn’t know whose body he or she is looking at.

During a demonstration, Stahl noted she was able to see a woman’s bra, which
according to the screener was normal. “To be frank, I thought I was going
to see something almost pornographic,” Stahl remarked.

“No,” Hawley replied.

Asked what happens to the image, Hawley said, “It’s destroyed as soon
as the next one comes. The machines are not capable of storing images.”

Experts say that one thing that has made air travel safer is something the
airlines did: harden cockpit doors.

As for TSA’s high-priced technology and its 50,000 screeners, Bruce Schneier
thinks there are more effective ways to spend the money. “We take away
guns and bombs so the terrorists use box cutters. So we confiscate box cutters
and corkscrews and they put explosives in their shoes. We screen shoes and they
use liquids. We take away liquids, and they’re gonna do something else.”

“So what do you do? What do you do? You just throw up your hands and…?”
Stahl asked.

“Well, most security has to happen before the airport. You think about
the liquid bombers who were captured in London. They were captured because of
investigation and intelligence. If you want to deal with the terrorist threat,
you’ve gotta do it before they get to the airport,” Schneier said.

But Kip Hawley at TSA says we have to do both: intelligence work and screening
at the airports.

“You have said some alarming things to us today. You’ve said, ‘America
is under attack,'” Stahl pointed out. “You’ve said, ‘They’re out to
kill us.'”

“Some people will say that you’re saying those things to scare us and
to justify all the things that TSA does,” Stahl said.

Hawley told Stahl that’s not true.

“That what you do at the checkpoints is not really making us safer. It’s
just making us feel safer. It’s almost like theater,” Stahl added.

“Yeah, this isn’t theater. This is war,” Hawley said. “We understand
the American public doesn’t have 9/11 in the front of their mind. But it’s why
the TSA was created: to never forget. And that’s what we do every day every
shift every checkpoint is never forget. And it’s our pledge to the public and
our commitment to ourselves. Stop those attacks.”

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Matthew Rothschild
Matthew Rothschild is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. Rothschild was the senior editor of The Progressive magazine from 1994 to 2014. Rothschild has appeared on Nightline, C-SPAN, The O'Reilly Factor, and NPR, and his newspaper commentaries have run in the Chicago Tribune, the L.A. Times, the Miami Herald, and a host of other newspapers. He is the author of You Have No Rights: Stories of America in an Age of Repression (New Press, 2007) and the editor of Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive, 1909-2009 (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009).