Undetected Bombs and Weapons Underscore Uselessness of TSA Airport Gauntlet

Can we just get rid of the damned agency already?



"The Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security has provided me with a classified, preliminary briefing that reflects test results centered largely on a specific manner in which someone may seek to bring prohibited items through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening into the secure area of an airport," Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson revealed yesterday. "it is not appropriate or prudent to publicly describe these results," he cryptically added, though he conceded that "The numbers in these reports never look good out of context."

They probably don't look a hell of a lot better in context. ABC News got hold of the results revealing that "undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials."

So, if you were wondering if there might at least be some gain in security as a tradeoff for being fondled by the TSA's perps and pervs at airport security, the answer is: no. A would-be terrorist is more likely to leave his paraphernalia in the shitter than to be detected by America's (not-so) impenetrable moat o' humiliation.

Not to fear. Acting TSA Administrator Melvin Carraway was promptly bounced. So all is well. Except…We've been down this path before. The TSA has zealously combined a talent for abusiveness with utter ineffectiveness for years now, to the frustration of critics and other government agencies. There's no reason to believe that the latest round of bureaucratic musical chairs will be the game-changer.

In 2013, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) pointed out (PDF) that not only had the TSA offered no evidence that its Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program works, nobody has ever found any support for the idea. That report emphasized that the GAO had raised the same concerns in 2010 and 2012, with no apparent impact.

This is actually a bit of a trend. A 2007 review of TSA methods published in the British Medical Journal found "no comprehensive studies that evaluated the effectiveness of x ray screening of passengers or hand luggage, screening with metal detectors, or screening to detect explosives." It was all implemented on a guess, apparently, with no effort made to discover if the security gauntlet actually accomplishes anything.

Last summer, researchers from the University of California at San Diego, the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins revealed that weapons can be easily smuggled past at least some models of full-body scanners simply by taping them against the body. Their study followed up on blogger Jonathan Corbett's video revelation of just that weakness in scanners. The researchers focused on a now-dropped scanner because they weren't able to gain access to other models, but Corbett tested his technique at airports against machines that are still in use.

Which is all to say that epic fail is not a new quality of the Transportation Security Administration—it'a characteristic that has been revealed, complained about, and baked in for years. Despite ongoing complaints about the unknown effectiveness or outright uselessness of the TSA's techniques, and the much-resented intrusiveness of its presence at airports, the federal agency keeps on keeping on with the utterly pointless and humiliating gauntlets it inflicts on travelers.

The latest report about explosives and weapons slipping through the TSA security cordon with apparent ease should, by all rights, raise calls to abolish the agency, and its equally awful parent department, too. Year after year of willful failure would seem to be ample justification for trying something different—if not more effective, at least less unpleasant.

I'd be more hopeful, if we hadn't already been through this before.