Ongoing TSA / Security Theater watch

The monthly "Airport Policy News" reports by Robert Poole, of the Reason Foundation, are a steady source of nuggets about economic, technological, and political developments in the aviation world. I would send a link to the latest report I'm about to cite, except that what's online, here, is routinely a few weeks behind what's come out in the newsletters.

I am not a full adherent to the Reason Magazine/Ayn Rand view of the world (I loved her books when I was 14, though!), including some specifics about aviation. But we are as one in dismay about the combination of authoritarianism, empty symbolism, and undiscriminating clumsiness that makes up much of our current TSA policy. See my Atlantic colleague Jeff Goldberg on this point too.

Poole's latest nugget is a GAO report on how the TSA is doing. Links to the full 75-page report and summary highlights are here. The cover page gets across the essential point, which is that years and years into its existence, the TSA is still not basing its screening plans, its strategy, or its technology on assessment of relative risk. That is, if you wonder why the two-year old in a stroller is getting the full pat-down and why so many TSA procedures fail the basic-logic test, it turns out that the GAO wonders those things too.

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From its summary:

"TSA completed a strategic plan to guide research, development, and deployment of passenger checkpoint screening technologies; however, the plan is not risk-based. [My emphasis.]...

"Since TSA's creation, 10 passenger screening technologies have been in various phases of research, development, test and evaluation, procurement, and deployment, but TSA has not deployed any of these technologies to airports nationwide.... In the case of the ETP [ a new scanner], although TSA tested earlier models, the models ultimately chosen were not operationally tested before they were deployed to ensure they demonstrated effective performance in an operational environment. Without operationally testing technologies prior to deployment, TSA does not have reasonable assurance that technologies will perform as intended."

Much more from the full GAO report, here in PDF form. I realize that there are bigger emergencies in America right now. But the ongoing impossibility of applying logic to this situation really is discouraging -- or, more positively, is an opportunity for someone in government to address.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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