In May, Transportation Security Administration screener Rolando Negrin pummeled a co-worker with his government-issued baton. The feud began, according to a Miami-Dade Police Department report, after Mr Negrin’s training session with one of the agency’s whole-body imagers.
The scan “revealed [Mr Negrin]had a small penis,” the disgruntled co-worker told police. After a few months, he “could not take the jokes any more and lost his mind”.
Now the TSA is rolling out these ultra-revealing imagers across the country in an attempt to uncover hidden threats like the so-called underwear bomb found on a Detroit-bound flight last Christmas. The agency and the scanners’ manufacturers insist they’ve installed features and instituted procedures that will make passenger embarrassments impossible. But the larger question is whether the TSA’s tech-centric approach to security makes any sense at all.
Even the most modest of us would probably agree to a brief flash of quasi-nudity if it would really ensure a safe flight. That’s not the deal the TSA is offering. Instead, the agency is asking for Rolando Negrin-style revelations in exchange for incremental, ineffable security improvements against particular kinds of concealed weapons.
It’s the same kind of trade-off TSA implicitly provided when it ordered us to take off our sneakers (to stop shoe bombs), and to chuck our water bottles (to prevent liquid explosives). Security guru and scanner suit plaintiff Bruce Schneier calls it “magical thinking . . . Descend on what the terrorists happened to do last time, and we’ll all be safe. As if they won’t think of something else.” Which, of course, they invariably do. Attackers are already starting to smuggle weapons in body cavities, going where even the most adroit body scanners do not tread.
My article in today’s Wall Street Journal has more. And it’s not all gloomy skies. There’s some hope that the TSA may be changing course, at least a bit.
New TSA chief John Pistole says the agency has to shift from a threat-driven outfit into an “intelligence-driven” organisation. There are some signs that such a move may be afoot.
On the night in late October that Saudi intelligence tipped the American government off to a late plot to blow up planes using explosives packed in printer cartridges, Pistole got a call from White House counterrrorism czar John Brennan. The TSA was then able to give new marching orders to everyone from air marshals to cargo inspectors. An agency team was even dispatched to Yemen, where the bombs originated. It all seemed shockingly logical for an agency that’s generally appears to be anything but. The quick response to intelligence and targeted security measures could provide a partial template for future action. The next step would be questioning passengers and employing high-sensors when travelers’ behaviour or specific threats warrant – instead of making us all get digitally nude.