TSA debate at The Economist

The Economist is hosting an online debate on this proposition:

This house believes that changes made to airport security since 9/11 have done more harm than good.

Arguing in favor of the proposition is Bruce Schneier, a well-known American security expert. Arguing against the proposition is Kip Hawley, a former administrator of the TSA.

The debate is about half-over now, and in the latest voting Schneier is winning by a big margin. The full debate is worth a read, including the comments, but here is an excerpt of each of the debaters’ positions.

Bruce Schneier:

Let us start with the obvious: in the entire decade or so of airport security since the attacks on America on September 11th 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has not foiled a single terrorist plot or caught a single terrorist. Its own “Top 10 Good Catches of 2011″ does not have a single terrorist on the list. The “good catches” are forbidden items carried by mostly forgetful, and entirely innocent, people—the sorts of guns and knives that would have been just as easily caught by pre-9/11 screening procedures. Not that the TSA is expert at that; it regularly misses guns and bombs in tests and real life. Even its top “good catch”—a passenger with C4 explosives—was caught on his return flight; TSA agents missed it the first time through.

In previous years, the TSA has congratulated itself for confiscating home-made electronics, alerting the police to people with outstanding misdemeanour warrants and arresting people for wearing fake military uniforms. These are hardly the sorts of things we spend $8 billion annually for the TSA to keep us safe from.

Don’t be fooled by claims that the plots it foils are secret. Stopping a terrorist attack is a political triumph. Witness the litany of half-baked and farcical plots that were paraded in front of the public to justify the Bush administration’s anti-terrorism measures. If the TSA ever caught anything even remotely resembling a terrorist, it would be holding press conferences and petitioning Congress for a bigger budget.
The argument that the TSA, by its very existence, deters terrorist plots is equally spurious. There are two categories of terrorists. The first, and most common, is the amateurs, like the guy who crashed his plane into the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin. They are likely to be sloppy and stupid, and even pre-9/11 airplane security is going to catch them. The second is the well-briefed, well-financed and much rarer plotters. Do you really expect TSA screeners, who are busy confiscating water bottles and making people remove their belts and shoes, to stop the latter sort?

Of course not. Because the TSA’s policies are based on looking backwards at previously tried tactics, it fails against professionals. Consider this century’s history of aircraft terrorism. We screened for guns and bombs, so the terrorists used box cutters. We confiscated box cutters and corkscrews, so they put explosives in their sneakers. We screened footwear, so they tried to use liquids. We confiscated liquids, so they put PETN bombs in their underwear. We rolled out full-body scanners, even though they would not have caught the Underwear Bomber, so they put a bomb in a printer cartridge. We banned printer cartridges over 16 ounces—the level of magical thinking here is amazing—and surely in the future they will do something else.

***
Exactly two things have made air travel safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door, and convincing passengers that they need to fight back. Everything else has been a waste of money. Add screening of checked bags and airport workers and we are done. All the rest is security theatre. If we truly want to be safer, we should return airport security to pre-9/11 levels and spend the savings on intelligence, investigation and emergency response.
Kip Hawley:
More than 6 billion consecutive safe arrivals of airline passengers since the attacks on America on September 11th 2001 mean that whatever the annoying and seemingly obtuse airport-security measures may have been, they have been ultimately successful. However one measures the value of our resilient society careening through ten tumultuous years without the added drag of one or more industry-crushing and national psyche-devastating catastrophic 9/11-scale attacks, the sum of all that is more than its cost. If the question is whether the changes made to airport security since 9/11 have done more harm than good, the answer is no.

Risk management is second nature to us. At the airport we see a simple equation: “I pay a cost in convenience and privacy to get reasonable certainty that my flight will be terror-free.” Since 9/11, the cost feels greater while the benefits seem increasingly blurred. Much of the pain felt by airport security stems from the security process not keeping up with its risk model. In airport security, we have stacked security measures from different risk models on top of each other rather than adding and subtracting security actions as we refine the risk strategy. This is inefficient but it does not create serious harm.

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