Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Partisanship and the TSA Controversy

Let me start by largely agreeing with Roger Cohen, who notes that the implementation of full body scanners at airports is irrational, and may be driven largely by the efforts of former government officials turned lobbyist (such as Michael Chertoff). Cohen doesn't fall into the trap of calling for profiling or for "Israeli-style" security, something that is completely unworkable in the U.S. system of air travel - and to many, far more objectionable - in favor of using actual intelligence to determine which passengers should be screened.

Let's be honest for a moment. Airport security screening as we know it was designed to stop hijackings in the classic sense - the opportunistic diversion of an aircraft to a different destination, or an attempt to hold hostage the passengers on an airplane. It was largely focused on obvious weapons, principally guns. That meant made it possible to screen passengers relatively quickly and painlessly. Most notably after the Lockerbie bombing, security was tightened in order to try to prevent bombs from being brought on to aircraft. Post-9/11, the effort to keep bombs off of airplanes has become increasingly zealous, to the point of the full body scanners backed up with frisks. Old style security isn't adequate for the types of bombs and weapons that the TSA is now seeking, because those bombs and weapons are non-metallic and may be prepared, sealed or carried in a manner that makes them very difficult to detect. There's a particular concern about PETN.

At the same time, the odds of a passenger actually carrying such a device are vanishingly small. In the ten years since 9/11, there have been a couple of attempts to get explosive devices disguised as clothing items onto airplanes - hence no shoes and scans of our underparts - and additional attempts to sneak explosives into air cargo - but not one such device has been intercepted by the TSA. And for 95+% of passengers, we have sufficient intelligence to know that they're not going to voluntarily hide such an explosive device in their clothing. That leaves the well-considered possibility that an explosive device may be slipped into their baggage, justifying better quality scanning of both checked and carry-on bags. And yes, there's the "action movie" scenario to consider - due to some sort of threat against your family, a terrorist coerces you into trying to smuggle a bomb onto a plane.

While Eugene Robinson suggests, quite correctly, that the principal reason for popular objection to the new security measures is that "I (or my grandmother) might get scanned", he suggests that's acceptable because terrorists are smart enough to identify people who won't fit a profile, and also that profiling is a greater threat to civil liberties than is the potential virtual strip search of anybody who wants to ride on an airplane. But when Robinson alludes to the 9/11 hijackers "not fitting" a profile because they were Saudi nationals, he's missing the point that we had ample intelligence to be concerned about those people. And it's been conceded that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the "underwear bomber") should never have been allowed to board the aircraft he attempted to bomb - he got on due to an intelligence failure, got through security (albeit outside of the United States), and was foiled by his fellow passengers. So far there is no reason to believe that body scanners or enhanced pat downs would have detected his explosive device. So tell me again, how does scanning grandma make us safer? In what parallel universe is Bob Herbert's grandmother going to try to smuggle a bomb into an airplane? (And in that universe, why wouldn't she pick an airport or security line that doesn't have a body scanner?)

But the action movie scenario is exceptionally far-fetched, and creates multiple points of potential failure that don't exist when you find a Richard Reid, Jose Padilla or Abdulmutallab who is willing to actually carry the device onto the plane. First you have to get the device and a sufficient cohort of terrorists into the United States, then you have to find a mark who is traveling on the correct plane at the correct time, then you have to find a way to coerce your mark into trying to smuggle the bomb onto the plane, then you have to maintain that level of coercion for a long enough period that he attempts to board the plane, then you have to hope he doesn't call the police, tip off security, or act so nervous at the airport that security figures out something is wrong, then (assuming your plan is sufficient to get past security) you have to hope the device isn't detected by happenstance, then you have to hope he doesn't choose not to activate the device or deactivate it during the flight... Terrorists may sometimes appear to be stupid or inept, and luck has been involved in our avoiding catastrophe with the post-9/11 bombing plots, but there's a reason that none of these attempts have involved trying to coerce innocent, outside parties into carrying bombs onto planes - it would make the scheme more complicated, necessitate involving more people and in its implementation would all but doom the plan to failure.

A few days ago Ross Douthat wrote an editorial suggesting that the controversy over the new screening methods reflects partisanship and hypocrisy. At the surface level that seems reasonable, as our nation (like every other nation) suffers no shortage of either commodity. But Dan Larison provides an apt rebuttal:
On the whole, people on the left who are not troubled by the obnoxious TSA scans and pat-downs have not been terribly troubled about most of the other infringements on constitutional protections carried out over the past nine years, and most of the people on the right who have discovered “libertarian impulses” in this case have shown no signs of such impulses until the last year and a half. These impulses were not suppressed during the Bush years. They did not exist. Instead, they have materialized out of nowhere.
Larison also notes,
Even when some conservative hard-liners have objected to the TSA procedures, it is usually not because they have rediscovered their inherent distrust of the national security state’s power (which they never had!), but because these procedures have simply underscored for them how silly it is to screen all passengers at airports. The uproar over obnoxious TSA methods has presented them with a new opportunity to revisit their calls for profiling. At best, most of these protests are complaints against inconvenience rather than objections against intrusive government, and many of them do not reject authoritarian practices, but simply want to change the form of authoritarian practices. To that end, rhetoric about preserving American liberty is useful, but these are often the same people who have tended to justify every government encroachment on liberty and every expansion of the warfare and national security state in the name of “defending freedom.” This is all fitted into the larger Republican attack that Obama refuses to “name” the enemy, and that he has erred by no longer referring to the “war on terror.”
Larison notes that the alleged "partisan mindset" was absent from the recent vote to renew the PATRIOT Act.

But there's something else to consider, much to the consternation of the Glenn Greenwalds of the nation: Issue fatigue. Something becomes a hot issue for a while, is played out in the press, nothing changes, and time passes. While people may not forget the issue, it loses its urgency. And, as Larison notes, most people are happy to acquiesce to the subversion of the civil rights of others, so there's little price to be paid for an elected official who happily shreds the Constitution in the name of "the war on terror". When you couple that with the fear, which seems particularly high on the part of Democrats, of being held accountable if anything bad happens - of having to confront a "why didn't you order all air passengers to be strip searched and fluoroscoped before boarding"-type argument following a successful terrorist attack - that they would rather waste billions of taxpayer dollars chasing shadows (hey - it's not their money) than have an adult conversation about risks and costs.


  1. When has this country had an "adult" type discussion about "risks and costs" about any topic?

    Why should we expect secutity to be any different?


  2. Secutity? Is that when you give an attractive person a full body scan? ;-)