David R. Henderson  

TSA Wins Another Round

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I've posted before on the TSA (here, here, here, here, and here.) I had some hope for a little assertion of federalism from Texas. The Texas legislature, after the U.S. Attorney John E. Murphy threatened that the TSA would ban all flights out of Texas if the measure passed, got cold feet about a measure to rein in TSA officials' sexual assaults on airplane passengers. There was still hope to reintroduce the measure (forgive me if I don't have all the details of Texas legislative procedure down but I think this is close enough), but Governor Rick "Tin Ear" Perry has quashed my hope by letting the bill die in the legislature. Why tin ear? Because, as writer Edmund Burke put it:

Perry continually claimed a need for a "consensus" when strong majority votes were there all the time and the Executive Committee of the State Republican Party had urged him to do so soon after the start of the special session.

As Burke notes, a Texas newspaper, the Longview News Journal reported that, "The governor's office received more than 10,000 phone calls, emails or other correspondence in favor of Simpson's bill from May 16 through June 20, a News-Journal open records request revealed. There were 13 messages against the measure."

Fortunately, that's just a loss in one battle, not in the war. I was visiting a friend in Detroit last week who makes about two airline trips a week, which works out to four times a week to go through TSA or their private-sector counterparts in various airports such as SFO. (The private-sector firms are required contractually to do what TSA does.) When I denounced TSA over the years, starting in 2002, my friend saw it only as a minor annoyance. That has changed.

My frequent-flyer friend told me that he has noticed two things since the groping started. First, he has seen the attitude of TSA employees change with the new procedures. In his words, "they seem more like East German police" than they used to. Second, other frequent flyers are getting upset. Going through the Syracuse airport a couple of weeks ago, my friend commented during a TSA grope, "This is stupid." The groper replied, "If you keep this up, I'll call the police and have you arrested." My friend held out his hands in front of him in the "invite handcuffs" gesture and said, "Go ahead. Arrest me. I'm an American. I have freedom of speech. Go ahead and arrest me for exercising my freedom of speech." "Move along," replied the TSA groper.

HT to Jacob Huebert.


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COMMENTS (29 to date)
B writes:

"If you keep this up, I'll call the police and have you arrested." My friend held out his hands in front of him in the "invite handcuffs" gesture and said, "Go ahead. Arrest me. I'm an American. I have freedom of speech. Go ahead and arrest me for exercising my freedom of speech." "Move along," replied the TSA groper.

This is why your friend should record his encounters with TSA. Without audio and/or video evidence, he would have been detained, possibly charged with some bogus crime like "disorderly conduct," missed his flight, and had little recourse.

tim writes:

From a security perspective TSA provides little value (security fundamentally changed when passengers realize that when someone tries to take over a plane - you pummel them - and not appease them - and of course reinforce the cockpit doors) but in the dozen times I've traveled this year I have yet to witness any of the "groping" or "harrassment" that has been described here or elsewhere. So it makes me doubt the stories ... or at least think that the people are "embellishing" them a bit.

In no instance has it taken me more than 10 minutes to get through TSA at Kennedy, Dulles, Midway, Msp, or any other US airport this year.

Steve Horwitz writes:

I travel a lot too, though not as much as your friend David, and my observation is just the opposite. I've been noticing over-the-top friendly chattiness from TSA staff, as if they are saying "we're really your friends, so maybe you won't notice that we're sexually molesting you if we smile and chat you up first."

I'm also somewhat doubtful about your friend's Syracuse story as I fly out of there all the time and they don't even have the new scanners (yet). I've never seen anyone there get the full grope. If you set the x-ray off, they put you in the little corral and give you the old non-genital pat down, at least as far as I've ever seen there.

I now take it as a challenge at airports with the scanners to worm my way into a line that doesn't have them. I also recommend carrying a copy of the Cato pocket constitution and laying it on top of your stuff before it goes through the x-ray machine, just to remind them of exactly what they are doing.

Jeff H. writes:

If a TSA agent abuses someone, then the local police have every right to arrest said suspect. Nobody is above the existing laws of the state of Texas, and if someone who happens to work for the federal government breaks the law, they must be arrested and held accountable the same as anyone else. If Texas allows TSA agents to abuse the people, then Texas itself is in the wrong.

John writes:

Jeff H:

What you say is true. I don't really see the need for new laws defining what they do as sexual assault, its already covered in existing law. If a police officer, a school teacher, a city employee does what TSA does they can and often are arrested.

What is necessary is for the state government to order the police to enforce existing sexual molestation law and arrest the perpetrator.

But, in fact they don't have the cajones to do even that. The terrorists have won; they have nudged America a little further along the road to a police state. Remember, a police states does not exist because the government arrests everyone, it exists when the government CAN ARREST ANYONE.

Kathy writes:

@ Tim - All things you read about the abuse are completely true. I have to fly weekly for work and have been violated to the point of tears on several occasions. I'm all for security but what we have now is forced submission and humiliation. Yes, I've also witnessed TSA workers that are pleasant and want to overcome the PR nightmare they currently have by being nice. I've even had two say that they didn't think this level of searching was necessary. I'm at the point that I refuse to travel unless necessary. Which means my family is driving 1,500 miles for vacation this year rather than submit.

Sue Wilson writes:

I love to travel. I finally am in the place in my life where I have the money to do so. But I can't. Why? Because I will no go in one of those cancer boxes, and I will not let anybody except for my husband and my gyno touch me there.

I am a prisoner in my own country.

Libbe writes:

As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse AND someone who was one mile from Three Mile Island when it happened, I will not place myself where there is tacit permission to irradiate or molest my body. Here's something to think about: experts believe that one in three women and one in five men was sexually abused at least once before age 18. (Survivors believe the numbers are way higher.) Everything we've learned to fight against and heal from is being perpetrated by our government in the name of airport "security." I believe it's no accident that BOTH methods result in sexual assault/humiliation. If you've been traumatized in the past, it's beyond devastating. If you haven't, you're about to be put in that category. In "Men, Women and Rape" by Susan Brownmiller, an important 1960's feminist book, I first read, "A country is defeated when the hearts of its women are on the ground." The TSA is a major step in this direction; we are being set up to be traumatized sheep. For now, all my travel is via car or virtually over the Internet.

Keep up the good work and let's see if we can find legislators w/the cojones to find a well-leveraged legal assault on the TSA. All it takes is one to break their back. New England? Where are you contrary Yankees from small states when we need you?

Mark Brophy writes:

We flew from Panama to Tijuana to avoid USA airports, but Mexicana Airlines and the USA government foiled our plans. We connected through Mexico City and the airline left my luggage there while we flew to Tijuana. We rode to LA while the airline flew my luggage across the border the next day. Unfortunately, the government vandalized my luggage, emptying some curry powder that covered my vitamins and spices with orange powder.

It was distressing to be without luggage for 20 hours, but I suffered less than Susie Castillo, whose vagina was fondled 4 times:
http://brophyworld.com/luggage-ransacked/

BZ writes:

@tim - go to www.youtube.com and enter "tsa" in the search box. Before you do, you should take care of any hunger or bathroom needs, because you'll be watching videos for a long, long, long time.

Alex Salter writes:

I never really understood why this was such an issue. In the counterfactual world where airline security was privatized, do we have reason to suspect it would look much different? In either case, one does not have a right to a seat on an airplane, only the right to purchase a seat on the terms the individual and the airline find mutually agreeable. I’m inclined to believe that airline security would have been much tougher long ago had it been left to be privately supplied. The same logic then applies now: if you don’t like the security process, don’t fly.

This isn’t to say the TSA isn’t overstepping its bounds, but such an organization with extremely similar (if not identical) practices would have arisen endogenously anyway.

Joe Cushing writes:

The searches are already illegal but if I were governor of a state, I would try and make 4th amendment violations a felony. This legislation wouldn't be a big public affair. It would just get slipped into some other bill--just a paragraph or so. Then I'd invite the head of the TSA to my state for some airport construction ceremony or some BS. Next, I'd arrest him and put him in jail for conspiracy to commit a felony. Then I'd promptly arrest all TSA agents at all the airports in the state. "I was just following orders," has long been recognizable at not an excuse. I think a move like this would really get the attention of the federal government.

On that note: 4th amendment violations should be a felony anyway. We could use laws like that against police.

Realistically, everyone who flies should say "shame on you" to their TSA agent and remind them that doing their job and following orders does not excuse them from doing wrong.

David N writes:

Alex, RE: public vs. private, see UPS, FedEx et al. v. USPS and compare experiences. How obtrusive is Las Vegas casino security compared to airport security?

Also, the TSA has been pulling surprise inspections of train passengers, including disembarking train passengers...

http://blog.tsa.gov/2011/02/screening-of-passengers-at-savannah.html

How long before they extend their "VIPR operations" to the national highways, etc.? I know, "if you don't like it just stay home."

PrometheeFeu writes:

Given the PR nightmare this is, if airline security was privately provided, it would be only a few moments before some VP or marketing director would have a flash of inspiration and say: "How about we drop that ineffective security and run ads that say: 'Fly with us. We won't sexually abuse your children.'" Also, given the ridiculous cost of the pornoscanners, no company would go and spend that money without doing a real study on their effectiveness. The only reason this money is being spent is because in Washington money grows on trees... I mean suckers... I mean tax-payers.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

We do in some sense have a right to travel, and even a right to travel in an airplane subject to private obligations. It is just not an especially fundamental one because it is not enumerated in the Constitution. That said, we do have the right to peaceably assemble and it IS enumerated. At this point, we could always drive to where we want to assemble but if the federal government begins overreaching regulation of all means of travel it pretty clearly violates this 1st amendment right.

Also, don't forget that your rights can be violated by stringent conditions put on their exercise, not just by preventing you from exercising the right entirely. Enumerated rights can be infringed upon even if government actions only substantially burden the rights expression.

Kevin Driscoll writes:

I just wanted to clarify that I realize that my conception of how the 9th amendment works is not really the conception employed by the Supreme Court today, but it is at least a reasonable position.

Telnar writes:

If anyone is looking for a passive but conspicuous way to show disapproval, www.securityedition.com sells copies of the bill of rights printed on aluminum.

Alex Salter writes:

@David N:

FedEX and UPS vs. USPS is a good example of the benefits of privately supplied services in general. My suggestion that private airline security would look very similar to what the TSA is doing now stems from the inherent perils of flying unique to that form of travel, i.e. hijacking. You mention casino security, which is a possible counterexample, but I still think the current situation is quite different. Traditional security measures assume that malefactors want to commit a crime and get away with it, but today there’s the very real potential that the malefactors intend to give their own lives to cause destruction. Because of this, I think airline security would have to be invasive, whether done by the TSA or the airlines themselves.

In regards to the roads, the key difference is the presence of alternatives. You can take a train if you don’t want to fly, but how is one supposed to even get to an airport or a train station if one cannot drive? You might think that the counterfactual world would have airlines competing on the security margin as well, but given the high asymmetry of the loss function, I’m pretty certain that their procedures would be just as thorough and invasive as what the TSA is doing today.

Allow me to ask a question which is at the heart of the matter: suppose airline security has been completely privatized, and assume every major commercial airline employs either their own security team or a third-party service (both private), whose methods are identical to that of today’s TSA. Would you still object to their practices? Why or why not?

Komori writes:

I'd still object and refuse to fly if private organizations did the same as the TSA. The difference, of course, would be that there'd be a huge profit potential in not following current TSA practices, as has already been pointed out.

The only security upgrade since 9/11 that's actually helped anything is the reinforced cockpit doors. Any private airline handling its own security would have done that upgrade anyway; the doors are a one-time cost that's much lower than loosing an airplane, even if there's no costs other than the plane itself involved (and there sure would be).

Additional point, but TSA level security demands a lot of money. Not just the capital cost of the very expensive scanners, but the ongoing operating costs of both the scanners (those things have got to be a huge maintenance expense) and the personnel, both to run the scanners and perform the gropings. Cutting all this out would save a lot of money, and if the last few decades have shown anything, it's that most people buy airplane tickets based primarily on price. The first airline that dropped its prices because it cut costs on security would get more business, and all the others would follow suit.

David N writes:

Alex,

It doesn't matter if the security is private or not; the current practices are unacceptable and ineffective. Entering an airport terminal increasingly resembles entering a prison with each passing year--but only in the US. No other security at any venue I'm aware of has to touch people's genitals, pat down small children and take away their snow globes, or make nursing mothers throw away their expressed milk. Except prisons. I don't know where your confidence in your ability to forecast private security practices comes from, but it's not well-founded.

And the TSA on the roads, Alex? It's already started. I won't post the link because I don't want to get held for moderation. But you can Google it.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Alex Salter,

You're making the big assumption that the current security measures are effective and necessary. There is no evidence that those measures have ever stopped a terrorist from boarding a plane. None at all. On the other hand, tons of money have been spent on this "security" measures and there are huge costs in terms of implementing those measures: passengers are delayed, gropers have to be paid, expensive machines have to be purchased. How many private companies would be willing to look like pedophiles and spend huge sums of money in order to get no visible results at all? I don't think many would. And if they did, their competitors would rapidly relegate them to the trash-heap of history.

Alex Salter writes:

@David:

I admit I don’t have much else than the product of common-sense reasoning (although I think you’d say there isn’t much sense in my reasoning). My thought process is as follows: 1) We suffered a terrorist attack that was a direct result of hijacking. 2) The terrorists probably wouldn’t have been able to take the plane if they didn’t have some small weapon, i.e. a knife. 3) Invasively searching passengers is a pretty good way to make sure no one has stuff like that with them while they’re in the flight cabin.

I can’t tell exactly what you’re saying about the privatized scenario. Do you believe private security which behaved as the TSA did should be forced to cease and desist?

As for the roads, I didn’t ignore it; I just think that case is clear-cut against the TSA. Let me be clear: I don’t disapprove of the TSA’s measures in the flight case, since if these measures were practiced by private security firms I'd still choose to fly. However, I do disapprove of the TSA having the monopoly to conduct them.

@Komori and Promethee:

How do we know the security measures haven’t helped? What evidence/studies are out there? I’m asking in genuine ignorance; I’ve never heard of any myself and would greatly appreciate any tips as to where I can find the information. I acknowledge the first-order case: none of the invasive searches have led to the discovery of an imminent terrorist plot. But what about the second-order effect of deterrence?

Komori writes:

We know by government press releases. As in, the stark lack thereof. The only confirmed terrorist threats we've had since, like the underwear bomber, got through security. The TSA has not announced a single case where they've actually caught a terrorist, and they're in such desperate need of good PR that they'd be trumpeting from the rooftops if they had a single case they could even spin to terrorism. Instead, if you watch what they say, the only people they're catching are getting hit with things like drug charges.

As for second-order effect, what deterrence? If any of the terrorist groups out there had a suicide bomb plot, all they'd have to do is set their bomber off in the middle of the security line in JFK or O'Hare and they'd shut down air transport in the US for at least a month.
You're not going to get any proof that the TSA is deterring anything. It's like having a magic rock that keeps tigers away.

Alex Salter writes:

@Komori:

I understand one cannot prove a negative. However, we have a theory to work with: the new TSA measures raise the cost of hijacking, so we should expect less hijacking. Of course, that also means we should be seeing relatively more terrorist activity elsewhere…

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Alex Salter:

Yes. It is possible that terrorists are deterred by the new security measures. (Though if you read Bruce Schneier's blog you will see references to studies which call into question the effectiveness of those measures.) However, while that is possible, there is no evidence that it is the case. There is however plenty of evidence that those searches are very expensive and very intrusive. So we have on the one hand a potential benefit for which we have no evidence and on the other hand a measurable and very large drawback. Why would anyone implement a plan that has those characteristics?

PrometheeFeu writes:

@Alex Salter

I would like to add that the potential benefit of those measures is extremely small. Look at the history of pre-9/11 hijacking. It is a very rare occurrence simply because it is very hard to do even without security checkpoints. Also, very few people have any desire to do it. Finally, when you hijacked the plane, in most cases you die and the vast majority of passengers walk away unharmed. I don't want to understate the pain and suffering of the victims of terrorism. It is a tragedy when it happens. But if your plan is to limit deaths from air travel, spend that money on reducing human error by pilots and you will get much more bang for your buck.

Methinks writes:

@ Alex Salter

The risk of dying in a terrorist attack on an airline was practically zero when 9/11 occurred and is still practically zero now. The odds of dying in a terrorist attack on an airline is 1 in 25 million. That number is otherwise known as "zero" for all practical purposes.

Compare that to the odds of being hit by lightening - 1 in 500,000. Your lifetime probability of dying in a car accident is 1 in 83. Your risk of drowning, falling (to fatal effect), and being murdered are all much higher than dying in an airline terrorist attack. Those risks you take every day.

Yet, despite an almost zero chance of dying in a terrorist attack, you are forced to suffer untold humiliation at the hands of the TSA.

The bottom line is that even if this level of security reduces this miniscule probability to an even more miniscule probability, the cost we are paying to hedge our risk far exceeds the risk we are taking. We are overpaying for insurance and those of us who want to rein in the TSA are merely asking that the cost of security we are forced to pay be brought back in line with the benefit.

It is clear that the government, through the TSA, is really reducing its own risk. Hijacked planes, no matter how infrequent, are bad press and bad for politicians in office. Since politicians shift the cost of insuring themselves against political fallout to you, there is no price too high to reduce an effectively zero probability to a number slightly closer to zero.

Ayn R. Key writes:

If you go to the TSA's own Website, you will find the TSA Blog, where PR representative Blogger Bob has told us that the gropes are not as invasive as we have been led to believe - that they do not touch the areas that the Texas bill would forbid them from touching.

Yet they reacted so negatively to the Texas bill.

If Blogger Bob is telling the truth, then the Texas bill only punishes those TSA Agents (TSOs) who go beyond the regulations and perform non-required actions. But the TSA response has been to say that this bill prevents the TSA from ensuring flights are secure.

Either the TSA is lying about what is included in the grope, or the TSA is lying about the Texas bill. Or the TSA is telling the truth about the procedure but encourages agents to go "above and beyond" in the name of security and never disciplines them for doing so.

Robert writes:

How about we take down all the Checkpoint Charlies at the airports, go back to when passengers could carry their guns aboard airplanes (only having to declare them to the airlines), and have a policy that if there is ever again an incident involving the spilling of blood in U.S. airspace, then Mecca and Medina will both be turned into giant, smoldering, radioactive craters that no one will be able to approach for thousands of years and survive without a radiation suit? How far do you think the 9/11 hijackers would have gotten if 50 passengers, or 20, or even 10 passengers aboard the planes had been armed, and therefore equipped to stop them? Even if one or two armed passengers turned out to be bad guys, the bad guys would still be outgunned 8-2 or 9-1. And there isn't going to be anyone more highly interested in stopping a hijacker or team of hijackers than the passengers who would recognize their lives are threatened. They would provide their own, effective, security, including killing the hijackers if necessary.

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