President Obama and the Spread of Security Theater

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During his tenure, the TSA has demeaned air travelers -- and if his administration gets its way, boat, train and truck passengers are next.

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My colleague James Fallows, as indispensable on the air-travel beat as he is on all the others he covers, has a good post up recounting his interactions with the Transportation Security Administration during his holiday travels. On this subject he and I are of the same mind: that most of the demeaning inconveniences we face in airports are "security theater" that do little if anything to make us safer, and are worthy of small, symbolic protests by freedom-loving citizens. But I would urge him to reconsider a small part of his conclusion, where he writes the following:


I'm thinking of a novel but powerful argument for the Obama re-election campaign. They could say that if you send him back for another term, and he's free of re-election fears, he might dare do something about the travesty of American values the modern TSA has become.

This is offered half in jest, but I think the humor is based on an important mistaken assumption: that President Obama secretly thinks airport security theater is as nonsensical as its critics do, and would do away with it if only the politics permitted him to be forthcoming with his uncensored judgment. Being likable, good at oratory, and undeniably intelligent, Obama often gets the benefit of those doubts. Alas, the result is that he is held less accountable than he ought to be -- as was President Bush, another personable fellow, and any number of other politicians.

As a general rule, what a leader does matters, not what he or she would do if they followed their hearts. Judging them by the latter quality creates an incentive for deceptive signalling and conducting campaigns via cultural cues. It permits politicians to succeed by convincing voters, "I am one of you," even while making those who identify with them worse off; it permits them to exude "I'm not the kind of guy who would do something wrong" while actually doing wrong.

In this case, the politics of the matter probably isn't what has stopped Obama from reining in the TSA. Speaking out against their excesses is in fact the popular position; quietly supporting the agency through the roll-out of naked scans and intrusive pat-downs is less popular, because even though a majority of Americans say they're okay with the naked scans, the agency itself and the pat-downs in particular are wildly unpopular. That's why Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and other Republicans have deliberately seized on the issue in their campaigns. Some of them pair their critique with a call for racial profiling, a position even more odious than the one the Obama Administration takes. But that doesn't change the fact that coming out against security theater is a winning political move, especially if done deftly. My sense is also that TSA critics care much, much more about the issue than its supporters.

What is so confounding about Obama is that he staked out civil-libertarian positions in 2008 that were political risks, especially for a candidate perceived to be a liberal Democrat; and having won the election with what seemed like the riskier, more principled articulation of values, and the mandate that came with it, he proceeded to govern -- on indefinite detention, the state-secrets privilege, whistleblowers, transparency, and other issues besides -- as if he'd run on Bush-era establishment positions. For that reason, Obama should cease to enjoy the benefit of the doubt that deep down he is secretly for reining in the excesses of the War on Terror.

The evidence no longer supports that proposition, and the odds are that if he is re-elected we're in for more of what we've gotten in his first term, perhaps especially at the hands of TSA agents. Just look at what the agency is quietly doing away from the airports, out there in the rest of America:

The Transportation Security Administration isn't just in airports anymore. TSA teams are increasingly conducting searches and screenings at train stations, subways, ferry terminals and other mass transit locations around the country. "We are not the Airport Security Administration," said Ray Dineen, the air marshal in charge of the TSA office in Charlotte. "We take that transportation part seriously." The TSA's 25 "viper" teams -- for Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response -- have run more than 9,300 unannounced checkpoints and other search operations in the last year. Department of Homeland Security officials have asked Congress for funding to add 12 more teams next year.

According to budget documents, the department spent $110 million in fiscal 2011 for "surface transportation security," including the TSA's viper program, and is asking for an additional $24 million next year. That compares with more than $5 billion for aviation security. TSA officials say they have no proof that the roving viper teams have foiled any terrorist plots or thwarted any major threat to public safety. But they argue that the random nature of the searches and the presence of armed officers serve as a deterrent and bolster public confidence (emphasis mine).
If President Obama says in his campaign that he is frustrated by TSA excesses, don't believe him. And if he says his administration is making efficient use of limited counterterrorism funds?

In Tennessee in October, a viper team used radiation monitors and explosive-trace detectors to help state police inspect trucks at highway weigh stations throughout the state. Last month in Orlando, Fla., a team set up metal detectors at a Greyhound bus station and tested passengers' bags for explosive residue.

In the Carolinas this year, TSA teams have checked people at the gangplanks of cruise ships, the entrance to NASCAR races, and at ferry terminals taking tourists to the Outer Banks.

At the Charlotte train station on Dec. 11, Seiko, the bomb-sniffing dog, snuffled down a line of about 100 passengers waiting to board an eastbound train. Many were heading home after watching the Charlotte Panthers NFL team lose to the Atlanta Falcons after holding a 16-point lead.
Feel safer?

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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