Something in excess of half a trillion dollars has been spent on airport and airplane security since the TSA was created in 2002.
What was formerly a quick and convenient stroll through a metal detector has now become a massively inconvenient process of taking laptops out of bags, removing one’s shoes and jackets, extremely intimate body searches, and more recently, taking everything out of every pocket as well – even a handkerchief is now enough to cause an alarm with the new whole body imaging scanners (scanners which were initially described as being able to reduce the amount of hassle involved with taking outer layers of clothing off, but which in reality now require us to get even more undressed than ever before).
And, talking about the whole body imaging scanners, while they are good at detecting handkerchiefs, most security experts in most other countries view them as useless for detecting ‘artfully concealed’ explosives. One other thing that some of them are also good at, unfortunately, is dosing us with what many radiation experts view as a potentially harmful dose of X-rays each time we subject ourselves to being radiated by such a machine.
No matter how much inconvenience is foisted upon us, one thing has remained pretty much unchanged since before the creation of the TSA – the percentage of banned items that make it through the security screening process. While the TSA seeks to suppress data about its ongoing failure to detect rates, it seems they continue to be in the order of 20% – 25%. Yes, one in every four or five guns or bombs typically go through the screening process undetected.
When asked about this, the TSA says that it doesn’t matter if they miss a gun or two here or there, because they have ‘multiple layers’ of security – I guess they’re referring to their farcical ‘behavior detection officers’ that roam around the airports looking for people displaying signs of anxiety or nervousness, and detaining them when found.
It seems these BDOs (I think there are more than a thousand of them) have never found a single terrorist, and the occasional press releases from the TSA lauding the ‘success’ of this project and indicating plans to expand it still further manage only to point to apprehending people with outstanding parking tickets and other types of non-aviation security related things, and at levels that are statistically similar to what you’d get from random samples of the population as a whole. They can’t point to one single terrorist apprehended, all that we’ve done is give up our Fourth Amendment right while inside an airport.
It does seem that the TSA and its Homeland Security parent organization are unstoppably growing like some malignant cancer on our free society. Indeed, next year, the budget for the Department of Homeland Security comes to a massive $39.5 billion.
But, there’s an exception to everything, and the exception to the unstoppable growth of DHS and TSA has now been uncovered. The White House seeks to cut funding for the Federal Flight Deck Officer program – the program that allows for armed pilots on planes – reducing it down from $25 million this year to $12 million next year. (Note that with ongoing fixed costs, halving the budget will massively more than halve the number of FFDOs capable of being supported.)
The White House said, in justifying the cut
The voluntary FFDO program was created as a “last defense” layer of security at a time when comprehensive aviation screening and other physical security measures were not fully developed or deployed on a system-wide basis. Since 2001, however, there have been a number of enhancements to aviation security. TSA now conducts 100 percent screening of all passengers and their carryon items, has overseen installation of reinforced and locking cockpit doors on aircraft that operate in U.S. airspace, and has increased passenger and flight crew awareness to address security risks. Combined, these improvements have greatly lowered the chances of unauthorized cockpit access and represent a comprehensive and redundant risk-mitigation strategy that begins well before passengers board the aircraft.
Much of what it says is nonsense, however. In particular, passengers and their carry-ons have always been 100% screened (and even now the TSA doesn’t do 100% of the screening, because all airports that can have opted out of using the TSA, preferring to use private contractors), and as for the ‘comprehensive and redundant risk-mitigation strategy’ claim, that is sixteen syllables of jargon that refers to next to nothing in reality, other than the porous TSA screening process and the ridiculous BDOs.
While we ourselves have advocated more resource be shifted to detecting terrorists well before they reach the airport (and we’re unaware of any increased attention to this) we’ve never ever said that pilots should be disarmed. Last ditch defenses are actually very effective and very essential, because no matter how effective the TSA may or may not be, there still remain plenty of vulnerabilities that determined terrorists could exploit to get themselves and weapons onto a plane.
If we accept at face value the ridiculous claim that our aviation security is now so rigorous that we can start dismantling some parts of it, let’s think which would be the best part to dismantle – would it be one of the vague and largely mythical ‘comprehensive and redundant risk-mitigation strategies’ somewhere in the airport, or would it be the ultimate desperate last ditch defense on the plane?
What makes you feel safer? A Behavior Detection Officer apprehending scofflaws in the terminal building while being careful not to show any prejudicial greater than normal interest in Muslims, or an armed pilot in the cockpit?
Tactically speaking, any defensive strategy would be prepared to accept a compromise in one of its middle layers of defense, but no-one would ever give up the last ditch defense.
We all know that someway, somehow, terrorists could still sneak on a plane – I could scribble out half a dozen vulnerabilities right now, but would prefer not to. Indeed, according to this article, there have been over 25,000 security breaches at US airports since 2001. And here’s an excellent article written in December 2011 about how the writer got through security with a fake boarding pass – a vulnerability that was supposed to have ended years ago.
But as long as there’s an armed pilot in the cockpit, how will they take over the plane? Sure, they might be able to cause the plane to explode in mid air, but how will they manage to take over the cockpit and then fly the plane into a building? An armed pilot, while far from a 100% certain defense, massively tilts the odds back in our favor and discourages terrorists from even considering plans including the commandeering of planes and using them as guided missiles against buildings.
It is true that armed pilots, to date, have never needed to use their personal side-arms to defeat a terrorist attack on the cockpit. But if that is the standard for now largely defunding the program, what standard applies to the ten or more likely one hundred times as costly Federal Air Marshal program? They too have never needed to defend a plane against terrorist attack, although they did shoot and kill a mentally deranged person who was running away from a plane at the time.
If ‘never catching a terrorist’ is the standard, how about the thousands of BDOs – again at a cost many times greater than the FFDO program? Indeed, how about almost every aspect of TSA! How much of the $39.5 billion overall DHS budget would also crumble if we are to test them against past successes, and to view previously multiply-redundant systems as now no longer needing so much redundancy?
I’ve never needed to use the spare tire in my car, but I still travel with one. Most of us have never had a total loss of our house to claim insurance on, but we all keep full replacement cost insurance on our houses. And so on and so on.
The FFDO program is actually one of the best value parts of the overall DHS budget. Most of the costs of the program are covered by the individual volunteer pilots, who have to train on their own time, be tested on their own time, and accept ridiculous restrictions on the transportation of their firearms to and from planes. Notwithstanding the inconveniences and the costs, and the insulting psychological evaluation that seems designed to filter out people with a typical set of ‘can do/take charge/having initiative’ personality characteristics that are usually the attributes sought in good pilots, it seems that perhaps 15% or more of all pilots have now joined the FFDO program (about 15,000 out of about 90,000 pilots in total in the US). Reports suggest the number would be even higher if it wasn’t for a bottleneck in training, with only one class each week in one location (New Mexico), and all classes are always full (pilots have to requalify every five years too).
The FFDO program was controversial since its inception, with the TSA ‘going slow’ as much as possible in implementing the congressionally mandated program. Predictable outcries foretold of pilots getting into shootouts in the airplane cabin with all sorts of passengers for all sorts of reasons, and of untold further innocent passengers being fatally wounded in the cross-fire. Such scare-claims were of course all utter nonsense, as has been seen by the fact that no pilots have needed to use their weapons in any situations to date, and indeed, they’re not allowed to take them into the passenger cabin or to leave the cockpit in an emergency – their mission is to stay in the cockpit and shoot the bad guys at point blank range as they burst in through the (inadequately strengthened) cockpit door.
There was one accidental discharge of a pistol in a cockpit, but the government overseers went very quiet about that when it turned out that it was due to the poor design of the ridiculous padlocked holster they require the pistol to be placed in.
If we trust a pilot with the command/control of the plane (and with the fire-axe in the cockpit) surely we should welcome them going to considerable personal inconvenience to undergo training and certification to carry a pistol with them while on duty.
So why single out a $13 million saving from the FFDO program in a $39.5 billion budget? That’s not even one tenth of one percent of the DHS budget. Is it because our government is prudently saving money everywhere it can? Or is it because our government hates anything that involves private citizens accepting responsibility and taking charge of their lives and destinies, preferring to make us more and more dependent on big government instead?
The FFDO program is one of the few parts of the total TSA ‘multiple levels of security’ that actually makes sense and which is remarkably great value. It should be protected and extended, not cut back.