In his NBC interview last month, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden critiqued the government’s willingness to exploit tragedies like 9/11 to “justify programs that have never been shown to keep us safe but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don’t need to give up.”
While Snowden had the NSA in mind—that agency’s massive illegal invasion of our privacy rightfully received plenty of attention in the last year—his words could just as easily apply to another “security” agency we’ve become all too comfortable with.
Sure, there’s still the occasional op-ed suggesting that the Transportation Security Administration be abolished, and yes, Americans have long been fairly ambivalent about this program. But nonetheless, we’ve grown sadly complacent about the TSA.
Although there is an anti-TSA minority, as this recent poll shows, the bulk of Americans believe that the TSA makes air travel safer, and that the security checkpoints are an effective way to prevent terrorism.
That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Despite the extensive security theater rigmarole to which we’re subjected every time we fly, the TSA has never caught a single terrorist. In fact, a leaked report showed that when undercover government agents tried to get fake bombs through TSA checkpoints at major airports like LAX and Chicago O’Hare, the TSA missed 60-75% of the bombs (Private security agents, to contrast, missed fake bombs only about 20% of the time. I don’t know about you, but I know which option would make me feel safer).
If the TSA were only ineffective, that would be bad enough. But it’s not just a waste of time—it’s an annoying, invasive, expensive, and even dangerous waste of time.
Remember air travel before 9/11? It wasn’t necessarily fun, but it wasn’t an awful, time-sucking hassle, either. Today, flying is inconvenient at best. Is it safe to arrive at the airport two hours early? Better make it three. Am I wearing shoes I can take on and off easily? Have I put all my tiny bottles in a quart-size bag?
Will my dignity fit in the same baggie too?
If you’ve flown in the last decade, you know what I’m talking about. TSA checkpoints are a hugely inconvenient attack on our privacy and individual rights, yet we’ve become accustomed to TSA abuses over the years—just like the proverbial frog gets used to the boiling water.
Don’t forget, this is the agency that made an 82-year-old breast cancer survivor strip to the waist. This is the agency that charged a man with a felony for a joke about peanut butter. This is the agency that forced a woman to drink her own breast milk to prove it wasn’t explosive. This is the agency that says, “We’re not detaining you. You just can’t leave.”
For the privilege of these assaults on our civil liberties, we taxpayers contribute about $8 billion annually—on top of “$606 billion in estimated lost tourism revenue from unreasonable procedures over past decade.”
And then there’s the ways the TSA actually makes us less safe. Aside from the agency’s aforementioned failures to actually stop terrorists and find bombs, the TSA makes airports more dangerous in two key ways.
First, by making dozens or even hundreds of people line up for slow-moving security checkpoints, the TSA creates a prime opportunity for—you guessed it—a terrorist attack. The most insecure part of the airport is the TSA checkpoint itself, as it gives would-be terrorists a large, stationary crowd in which to wreak havoc.
Second, the TSA lulls us into assuming that once we’re past “security,” all is safe. In reality, we’re not any safer at all. Darlene Storm notes at Computer World, “[A] marginally resourceful and MacGyver-esque individual can breeze through terminal gift shops, restaurants, magazine stands and duty-free shops to find everything they need to wage war on an airplane.”
In short, the TSA gives us plenty of fondling but not much real security.
And while Americans are increasingly accepting the TSA as a fact of life, the TSA is busy expanding its reach and bolstering its strength.
In addition to wanting armed guards at checkpoints, the TSA is now conducting warrantless searches on valet-parked cars at some airports—a practice the agency denied on its blog despite ample photo evidence. Meanwhile, TSA agents are popping up at concerts and football games, train stations and bus stops.
This expansion is so poorly justified that even the Department of Homeland Security—which is not exactly known for prioritizing civil liberties—is questioning whether TSA teams operating outside airports “are properly trained and deployed based on actual security threats.” Those questions are well-founded, since internal TSA documents have revealed that the TSA itself does not believe that terrorists are even targeting planes anymore.
If there’s any evidence that TSA programs outside of airports are better justified than those inside airports, I’ve yet to hear of it.
So if they TSA isn’t stopping terrorists and admits that terrorists don’t want to hijack airplanes anymore, why is this monstrous agency still plaguing our airports? Edward Snowden nailed it: The TSA is the epitome of a program which has “never been shown to keep us safe but cost us liberties and freedoms that we don’t need to give up.”
The TSA is a classic example of our government exploiting a tragedy to expand its prying reach into every aspect of our lives.
Now is not the time to become complacent.