With an $8 billion annual budget and a 70 percent failure rate detecting guns, knives, and bomb components in random tests, the effectiveness of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s airport screening procedures was the focus of a recent online debate hosted by The Economist magazine.
The 87-13 margin by which readers agreed that “changes made to airport security since 9/11 have done more harm than good” made this the most lopsided result I’ve seen in two years following various debates held by The Economist.
The language of security theater should be familiar to most meeting professionals. The U.S. Travel Association addressed the economic impact of airport screening practices in 2010, finding that two-thirds of recent travelers “would fly more if security procedures were equally as effective as they are now but less intrusive and time-consuming,” according to a report on MeetingsNet. “The top three words respondents use to describe today’s screening process are: ‘inconsistent,’ ‘stressful,’ and ‘embarrassing.’”
But the U.S. Travel study begged the question of whether the pat-downs, full-body scans, and endless delays actually deter would-be terrorists. In The Economist debate, Kip Hawley credited more than six billion consecutive safe passenger arrivals since 9/11 to airport security measures. He wrote that from 2006 to 2008 a typical day included “threat discussions” with intelligence analysts of “about half a dozen to a dozen specific, separate, serious plots.”
The problem, according to The Economist’s Gulliver blog, is that TSA’s own tests point to a 70 percent failure rate when officials try to sneak weapons through the security line. In late 2010, ABC News told the story of a passenger who accidentally boarded a plane in Houston with a loaded pistol, was shocked when he found it in his carry-on bag, and reported the error to authorities. A year later, TSA caught a U.S. Special Forces demolitions expert trying to board a plane with C4 plastic explosives—on his return trip.
None of this comes as a surprise to security specialist Bruce Schneier. TSA “has not foiled a single terrorist plot or caught a single terrorist” since its formation after 9/11, he told The Economist debate, and its “’good catches’ are forbidden items carried by mostly forgetful, and entirely innocent, people.”
Schneier argued that TSA has two categories of terrorists to contend with. “The first, and most common, is the amateurs,” he wrote. “They are likely to be sloppy and stupid, and even pre-9/11 airplane security is going to catch them.” But security theater is less likely to succeed against the biggest threats: “Because the TSA’s policies are based on looking backwards at previously tried tactics, it fails against professionals.”
Most voters in The Economist debate bought Schneier’s argument that “if we truly want to be safer, we should return airport security to pre-9/11 levels and spend the savings on intelligence, investigation, and emergency response.” Expert opinion and the word on the street reinforce the conclusions you’ve probably reached about TSA security measures, but that won’t be much comfort the next time you send thousands of participants into the queue for their ritual pat-downs.
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc., Ottawa, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content, and founding chair of the GMIC Sustainable Meetings Foundation. Beer blogs at http://theconferencepublishers.com/blog and tweets as @mitchellbeer.