The TSA Will Run the Show, With the Emphasis on Show


Yesterday the Transportation Security Administration said it will begin taking over the responsibility of checking airline passengers against government-generated watch lists in January. It expects to be fully in charge of that function, which the airlines currently handle, by the end of next year. The TSA, which has been working on a revamped system for vetting passengers since 2001, says exciting new developments in data analysis, including the use of full names, gender, and birth dates, will help avoid the sort of confusion that has grounded or delayed tens of thousands of innocent travelers mistaken for Al Qaeda hangers-on:

Details about why certain passengers are stopped are normally not shared with travelers, who often endure long delays and pointed questions. [The Department of Homeland Security] has received more than 43,500 requests for redress since February 2007 and has completed 24,000 of them, with the rest under review or awaiting more documentation.

Even if the TSA delivers on its promise to stop confusing members of Congress with terrorists, the watch lists seem like more trouble than they're worth:

The number of people who actually match the names on the watch lists is minuscule, officials acknowledged. On average, DHS screeners discover a person who is actually on the no-fly list about once a month, usually overseas, and actual selectees daily, [TSA Administrator Kip] Hawley said.

To bolster their case for the new program, U.S. officials for their first time disclosed that the no-fly list includes fewer than 2,500 individuals and the selectee list fewer than 16,000.

I noted the slow movement of watch list reform last year. In a 2004 reason cover story, James Bovard took a broader view of TSA folly. The latest issue of The Atlantic includes an article by Jeffrey Goldberg that reaches similar conclusions, relying heavily on the insights of TSA critic Bruce Schneier. Goldberg, who snuck various banned items past TSA screeners as part of his research, dismisses airport anti-terrorism measures as "'security theater' designed to make travelers feel better and catch stupid terrorists."