The We Won’t Fly movement (WeWontFly.com) is eliciting panicked squeals from the leadership of Homeland Security and the TSA. TSA chief John Pistole calls the movement “irresponsible,” and Secretary of Fatherland Security Janet Napolitano argues (“Scanners are safe, pat-downs discreet,” USA Today, Nov. 15) that … well, that scanners are safe and pat-downs discreet.
Safe? This the same government that stonewalled for years on Agent Orange, depleted uranium, and Gulf War Syndrome. Some scientists are already warning that back-scatter radiation will raise the statistical incidence of skin cancer. The ionizing radiation is cumulative, just like that of X-rays. And since it mainly affects the skin, dosage estimates based on total body volume exposure are extremely misleading.
Discreet? Yep, a TSA employee shrieking “Opt out! Opt out!” in order to inflict maximum public embarrassment on the noncomplier sure sounds discreet to me.
But what about effectiveness? There are serious questions as to whether the Underwear Bomber’s device would even have shown up on a body scanner. British researchers found that low-density items like liquid explosives and plastic don’t show up very well on a body scan.
The main reason it isn’t effective is that it’s aimed at thwarting something al Qaeda probably won’t try again, for the same reason it won’t try hijacking airplanes with box-cutters any more. Precisely because Al Qaeda is an agile networked organization, rather than a lumbering bureaucracy, it’s likely not to keep trying stuff that it knows the pointy-haired bosses at TSA have developed countermeasures for. TSA constantly and painstakingly develops measures for winning the last war. Everything it does is predicated on the assumption that al Qaeda is a bureaucracy as stupid as the TSA itself. The TSA approach — Security Theatre — is a lot like the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight because the light’s better there.
Napolitano pays lip service to the idea that al Qaeda constantly adapts its tactics, and that American security “depends on being … more creative to adapt to evolving threats” than Osama bin Laden is at dreaming up those threats. But the reality is more like the Ministry of Central Services in the movie “Brazil.”
You can make a pretty good case that Al Qaeda’s terror attempts are guided, in large part, by the reaction they want to provoke from the U.S. government. The Underwear Bomber achieved the most important objective for Al Qaeda, in that regard, by imposing even more degrading conditions on air travelers, slowing down the processing system still further, and raising costs. All they have to do now is smuggle some explosives rectally (body scans don’t pick up stuff in body cavities, by the way), and TSA will have to either mandate cavity searches or finally admit that there’s a risk in anything.
Secretary Napolitano’s repeated references to “multi-layered” security are especially humorous. The top “layer” of the TSA bureaucracy, thanks to an overload of “intelligence” from an intrusive surveillance state on steroids, generates mainly false positives. Useful information, even highly specific information about who, when, where and how, is buried like a needle in a haystack. And every terror attempt elicits calls from the surveillance state to pile the hay higher. The Keystone Kops at TSA were unable to stop the Underwear Bomber even with specific, actionable intelligence from the perpetrator’s own father.
In the face of such bureaucratic paralysis from intelligence overload, the one viable alternative is (in open source expert Eric Raymond’s words) to decentralize, harden, and rely on last-mile networks for most of the prevention. Ironically, though, TSA has imposed authoritarian restrictions on the one “layer” that actually demonstrated the capability to stop people like Richard Reed and the Underwear Bomber: The passengers.
The one thing large, bureaucratic organizations are good at is aggregating concentrated power, then making up plausible sounding lies to justify that power. It’s generally good policy, when an official spokesperson for such an organization claims a measure is either safe or effective for the purposes it ostensibly serves, to assume everything he or she says is a lie.