The TSA, the terrorists who succeed even when they fail, and who the heck is going to do my cavity check?

From the photograher, Dean Shaddock: This was ...Image via WikipediaThe TSA is in the news a lot these days. And mostly, not in a good way.  There was Celeste, a rape survivor who described her experience with the new TSA procedures as devastating.

The University of California scientist points out that “The risk of radiation emission to children and adolescents does not appear to have been fully evaluated.” And for pregnant moms, “The policy towards pregnant women needs to be defined once the theoretical risks to the fetus are determined.”

And moms question if TSA’s new full body scanners are safe for kids.

Then there’s that man from the “if you touch my junk..” video that has now gone viral.  And because this is 2010, he not only had a camera phone but also can quickly set up a blog in 2 seconds to share his experience.  You can read the entire episode of his TSA encounter in his blog here.  When I last look, there were over 5,000 comments in that single blog post, which tells us this issue has hit a nerve with the public.

TSA administrator John Pistole told the Senate Homeland Security Committee yesterday that there will be no exemption from the full-body scanners or the enhanced pat downs.  Not for religious reasons. And obviously no exemption either for 96 year old grandma, or the two-month old sweet Samantha or that would give ideas to the bad guys..

Oh .. and since presumptive House speaker John Boehner says he will fly commercial between his Ohio district and Washington instead of using military aircraft, can we expect that he, too will not/not be exempted from the backscatter or the enhanced pat down?

How did it come to this?

True, there were plane bombs. That made us all paranoid, for no other reason than the fact that we now know there really are people out there who wanted to kill as many of us as they can. So out the boxcutters went; and knives, axes,meat cleavers, and all that. By the way, nail clippers, knitting needles and corkscrews are all urban legends according to the TSA blog.  Still, the list just kept getting longer, but even this list is a non-inclusive list. And the Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) may also determine that an item not on TSA’s Prohibited Items List is actually prohibited.

In 2001, Richard “shoe bomber” Reid happened.  He hid the explosives in his shoes, which led to the new requirement of airline passengers having to remove their shoes for inspection before boarding a flight or entering an airline terminal.  [We did a lot of shoe removals in US airports, twice in a Guatemalan airport (even if we did not exit the building) and not once in Germany’s airports.] 

The 2006 foiled liquid explosives plot in the U.K. according to TSA “demonstrated a real threat and is the catalyst for TSA’s liquids restrictions.” So no more bottled water either.  Eventually the limit came to no more than 100 ml. explained in great detail by TSA here.

A 2009 OIG report indicates that TSA not only planned on spending 700 million in Electronic Baggage Screening Program  but also 300 million in passenger screening which includes proposed acquisition of 700 advanced tech x-rays, 500 bottled liquid scanners, 200 whole body imagers and 300 units of explosive trace detection.

The same month the OIG report was issued, Umar Farouk “underwear bomber” Abdulmutallab  attempted to detonate plastic explosives hidden in where else — his underwear.

The odds of dying

There were hearings and reports and whatnots in the aftermath of the attempted Christmas day bombing; we’ve lost track how many there were.  But we started seeing shadows in every corner.  The jaws of terror in every cloud, despite the odds — see our favorite number crunching guy who pulled down the numbers:

The Odds of Airborne Terror
by Nate Silver | 12.27.2009

Over the past decade, there have been, by my count, six attempted terrorist incidents on board a commercial airliner than landed in or departed from the United States: the four planes that were hijacked on 9/11, the shoe bomber incident in December 2001, and the NWA flight 253 incident on Christmas.
Over the past decade, according to BTS, there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. Dividing by six, we get one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures.
These departures flew a collective 69,415,786,000 miles. That means there has been one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 mles flown. This distance is equivalent to 1,459,664 trips around the diameter of the Earth, 24,218 round trips to the Moon, or two round trips to Neptune.
There were a total of 674 passengers, not counting crew or the terrorists themselves, on the flights on which these incidents occurred. By contrast, there have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade. Therefore, the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

Those odds didn’t do us any good, of course.  The bad guys only have to get it right once. And even when they spectacularly fail, they still succeed — not in killing as many people as they can, but in screwing the head of as many of us as possible. Not only to terrorized us. But to shock governments into spending millions and millions of dollars on security programs and technologies.  And you know what, they probably can bleed our bank dry with their most amateurish attempts year in and year out.

Although TSA originally indicated to the OIG it would acquire 200 units of whole body imagers, in March 2010 it began deploying 450 advanced imaging technology units. On its website TSA says:   

TSA began deploying state-of-the-art advanced imaging technology in 2007. This technology can detect a wide range of threats to transportation security in a matter of seconds to protect passengers and crews. Imaging technology is an integral part of TSA’s effort to continually look for new technologies that help ensure travel remains safe and secure by staying ahead of evolving threats.

TSA uses two types of imaging technology, millimeter wave and backscatter. Currently, there are 317 imaging technology units at 65 airports.

In March 2010, TSA began deploying 450 advanced imaging technology units, which were purchased with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds.

Advanced imaging technology screening is safe for all passengers, and the technology meets national health and safety standards. Learn more about the safety of AIT here.

TSA has implemented strict measures to protect passenger privacy, which is ensured through the anonymity of the image. Additionally, advanced imaging technology screening is optional to all passengers. Learn more about the privacy measures TSA has taken here.

In October 28, 2010, the following item came out of TSA’s press shop:

“TSA is in the process of implementing new pat-down procedures at checkpoints nationwide as one of our many layers of security to keep the traveling public safe. Pat-downs are one important tool to help TSA detect hidden and dangerous items such as explosives. Passengers should continue to expect an unpredictable mix of security layers that include explosives trace detection, advanced imaging technology, canine teams, among others.”

The money, the money

According to the Congressional Research Service (PDF), the President’s request in FY2011 for TSA specified a total gross funding of $8,165 million, an increase of about 7% over FY2010 enacted levels.  The FY2011 budget request also included $20 million for deploying 350 additional behavioral detection officers (BDOs) to spot suspicious behavior as part of passenger and baggage screening operations.

This would give TSA a total of 3,350  behavioral detection officers (BDOs). See our post, TSA’s $200M Spot a Terrorist Program Never Caught One? Friday, May 21, 2010

Also the following: 

Proposed increases for passenger screening and security include an increase of $215 million over FY2010 baseline levels for the purchase and deployment of advanced imaging technology (AIT), also known as whole body imaging (WBI) systems, at airport screening checkpoints. The President’s request also specified an additional $219 million for about 3,500 full-time equivalent (FTE) screeners to operate newly deployed AIT systems, as well as $96 million for airport management and mission support for deploying and operating these systems.
By the end of FY2011, the TSA anticipates that AT X-ray deployment will be at 96% of full operating capacity (FOC) sought by FY2014, whereas AIT deployments will only be at 56% of FOC. The TSA strategy is to focus its AIT deployments at larger airports first, and by end of FY2011, it plans to have deployed 75% of the FOC at the most critical Category X airports. This strategy may, however, leave vulnerabilities at smaller airports. The sustainment costs of checkpoint screening systems may also be a particular concern for appropriators. For FY2011, the TSA request includes $74 million for maintenance of checkpoint screening equipment, a 45% increase compared to FY2010. Checkpoint screening maintenance costs will likely increase considerably in future years, to pay for upkeep and extend the service life of the more complex next generation screening technologies currently being deployed.

So there will be job creation…. and an booming expanding industry.

And that’s where we are.

About these new technologies

A GAO report in October 2009 included this item:

“TSA has relied on technologies in day-to-day airport operations that have not been demonstrated to meet their functional requirements in an operational environment. For example, TSA has substituted existing screening procedures with screening by the Whole Body Imager even though its performance has not yet been validated by testing in an operational environment. In the future, using validated technologies would enhance TSA’s efforts to improve checkpoint security. Furthermore, without retaining existing screening procedures until the effectiveness of future technologies has been validated, TSA officials cannot be sure that checkpoint security will be improved.”

The OIG report dated December 2009 had this:

At the time of our review, TSA had used only $3 million of its $197.7 million passenger screening technology budget to purchase first-generation advanced technology x-ray machines. TSA planned to award the remaining $194.7 million by the fourth quarter of FY 2009 for the following screening technology:

All of these technologies, except for explosives trace detection, are still undergoing qualification and operational testing. As a result, TSA does not yet know whether or when these technologies will be available for deployment.

Now, what do you make of that?

Potentially the next big thing…

In August 2009, four months before the “underwear bomber” attempted martyrdom, an al Qaeda affiliate hid an improvised explosive device (IED) in his anal cavity and detonated himself in Saudi Arabia. 

In AQAP: Paradigm Shifts and Lessons Learned, STRATFOR writes, “Suicide bombers have long been creative when it comes to hiding their devices. In addition to the above-mentioned IED in the camera gear used in the Masood assassination, female suicide bombers with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have hidden IEDs inside brassieres, and female suicide bombers with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party have worn IEDs designed to make them look pregnant. However, this is the first instance we are aware of where a suicide bomber has hidden an IED inside a body cavity.”

The terrrorist who fortunately, killed only himself, reportedly used an explosive called PETN. The same one used by the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber. Apparently, also the same material used in the attempted toner bombing recently.

Which then begs the question — can these new machines find explosive materials inside a body cavity? Understandable, TSA would probably keep that info under wraps.  Still, sooner or later, that’s where it’s going, no?

And what happens the next time we find explosive materials in somebody’s bra or in somebody’s breast implants? 

Are we then going to have booty or boobies scanners?

And who’s going to do the cavity check, pray tell, if the passenger opts out?

Somehow, the terrorists are laughing their heads off in some cave as we spin in our hamster wheels. Is this really the best we can do?

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