In most of the articles posted on this website, authors and reporters focus on all things Iowan. However, as our President often says, we have a “teachable moment” going on as we examine the current security inspection regime at the Transportation Security Agency (TSA).
All the flap associated with the full-body scanners and the intrusive pat-downs is a microcosm of what is wrong with government in America today. Not only do we have an agency operating without input from any other stakeholder in the airport security policy domain, that agency is committing the gravest of business errors—sticking to a bad course based on sunk costs.
Every business student knows that sunk cost is the worst reason to pursue a course of action. If what is being done isn’t working, then stop what is being done. The worst offensive of the national government, however, is that We, the People, are not being treated like citizens by those who are charged to govern in accordance with the will of the governed.
The argument about TSA screening right now is focused on how intrusive the full-body scanning search techniques really are. I have recent experience going through this procedure. More on that later. For now, I want to discuss what is actually going on inside TSA and why the public perception of full-body scanning is so negative and what is being done, or not done, about this perception at the agency.
I teach a lot of graduate students who have homeland security responsibilities. Many of these students are senior managers at TSA. Their challenges are many, but right now, these hard working and dedicated civil servants are fighting political appointees who are incompetent, rank and file workers who are struggling to gain an organizational identity and outside agitation from schemers who want to bring an additional seventy thousand TSA officers into the legalized money laundering scheme we euphemistically call public unions.
Worse, the current passenger security routine is focused on past threats, not what is likely to be the next set of tactics used by people who want to do us harm. In recent conversations with several of my students, they are so demoralized by the pounding they are taking in the press that many are considering moving to different organizations such as Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement—not exactly the cheeriest organizations.
The leadership at TSA does not seem to have a foggy clue on how to deal with the bad press, bad morale or bad business being done by the agency for which they are responsible—and Americans are no safer when taking to the air.
For the past two years or so, senior career civil servants at TSA have advanced any number of ideas that, if implemented, would provide much greater security for air travelers without increasing the stresses associated with what has been to this point security inspections that are more focused on appearance than effectiveness.
At the crux of the list of alternatives is a process that includes biometrics, passenger history information and—get this—a form of profiling. Similar models have been used in Israel and the UK for years. One has to wonder why we are not entertaining or experimenting with similar models here. Are we so bound up with political correctness that we will make air travel uncomfortable for everyone when the focus ought to be on a handful of bad people? The answer is obvious, and we see that answer every night on the news.
Since 2003, the TSA has tripled in size and brought into our traveling lives more intrusion into personal space and less regard for decency and civil liberties. As agencies expand, the hiring pool gets thinner, so perhaps a lot of this downward spiral in efficiency could have been predicted. However, one could hardly have predicted how an agency that is supposed to be operating in our interest is now an adversary and emblematic of a cold, heartless and inept Leviathan. And until the leadership changes in the White House, DHS and at TSA, the animus building in the American flying public is not likely to abate. Now my story with full body scanning.
A few weeks ago, I was returning from California where I had been observing a homeland security course being taught at the Naval Postgraduate School. I travel frequently so I try to be at the airport early so as to impose as little stress on my travel day as possible. Upon entering the security queue and arriving at the standard metal detector, I was pulled out of line and directed to go through the full body scanner.
Anyone who knows me would realize that a full body scan of me would take the full seven seconds the machine operates. After the scan, I was directed to place my feet on two outlines on the carpet. Two TSA officers, one about three inches away and the other about a foot (well inside my personal comfort space) directed me to put my arms up so I could be “patted down.”
During the course of what was a very personal and intrusive physical inspection, I was directed to take all the objects out of my pocket. Of course, that included my wallet, my paper cash, my handkerchief and comb and my card wallet. My belt had to come off and now I was standing with my left hand on my pants waist and the right arm still in the air.
The two gentlemen, still very close, stated I still had one more item that needed to be produced. I reached in my back pocket and produced a very worn, thin leather covered booklet. The gold print had long since worn off the booklet, but when the inspector opened the pamphlet and realized at what he was looking, his whole demeanor changed.
He handed it to his companion, and after he recognized its content, he, too, became much more facilitative and convivial. The booklet I handed them was my copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution I carry with me everywhere I go. Our encounter moved from an officer-passenger inspection to a citizen-to-citizen interaction with common outcomes desired and achieved. Again, a teachable moment.
The people at TSA need to remember that most of the people with whom they interact are fellow citizens. As citizens, we have responsibilities, but we also should be respected by the government that governs at our behest. If those who run our government in DC (and Des Moines) could remember that we are citizens and not problems or threats, perhaps our government could begin the process of regaining our trust. One could only hope.
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