7 Reasons the TSA Sucks (A Security Expert's Perspective)
For a bunch of people in snappy uniforms patting down crotches, the TSA is remarkably unpopular. Nobody likes going through security at the airport, but you probably figured most of it had a point. All those hours spent in line with other shoeless travelers are a necessary precursor to safe flying. It's annoying, but at least it wards off terrorism.
That's all bullshit. The TSA couldn't protect you from a 6-year-old with a water balloon. What are my qualifications for saying that? My name is Rafi Sela, and I was the head of security for the world's safest airport. Here's what your country does wrong.
(If only we could go back to the uber-safe days of the Wild West, where the biggest annual gun death toll in any town was five people. Read The De-Textbook and never let Clint Eastwood trick you again.)
The TSA Is Supposed to Regulate Itself
I went to meet with Joe Lieberman back when he was the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security. Lieberman asked me to write a one-page letter to Congress and the Senate outlining America's major problems with airport security. I told him the biggest issue was that the TSA is a regulatory agency and a security agency. They essentially make their own rules. No one else -- not the FBI, not the CIA, not anyone but a loose-cannon New York cop -- gets to do that.
As long as Detective Smoke Guncar gets results, he's above the rules.
Lieberman and a colleague of his named John Mica pushed an "opt-out" program for airports in the Aviation and Security Act. The problem was, the TSA needed to write standards and regulations for this program, and they just weren't doing it. So I went to Kip Hawley, head of the TSA, and said, "Look -- my company and I helped write the regulations for the Israeli Security Agency at Ben Gurion Airport. Let us help you."
And he said, "Ah no no no, we've got this all covered. It's just a matter of time."
I said, "Bullshit. You don't know shit about airport security."
He's pretty sure it's got something to do with bags, though.
Fast forward to today, the TSA is finally processing all those pending opt-out requests. After only a dozen years.
Ben Gurion is probably the most threatened airport in the world. It has between 50 and 70 incidents every day. Nobody hears about those because we handle them. And despite a constant daily grind full of credible threats, we still drill the entire airport's security force seven times a day. No airport in the United States deals with regular daily threats -- yet they each drill only once or twice per year.
Here we see their worst nightmare: a luggage shortage.
This is an even bigger problem when you think about the TSA's turnover problem. I call the TSA the biggest train system in the world, because it's common for much of the floor force to be replaced on a yearly basis. So if the TSA only drills once or twice a year, you've got a ton of screeners who go their entire (short) careers without ever being tested. People need to realize that security can't be treated like a fast food company. These people are tasked with finding bombs, not flipping burgers.
Politics Play a Larger Role Than You'd Think
Remember those full-body scanners that leaked naked pictures of random citizens all over the Internet? The last ones were removed earlier this year, but did you ever wonder how those things were approved in the first place?
People fly easier if you let them feel a little like Doctor Who first?
Blame Michael Chertoff, former secretary of Homeland Security and head of the Chertoff Group, which in 2010 represented a little company named Rapiscan. In addition to sounding like "Rapey-Scan," Rapiscan was in the business of making full-body scanners. Chertoff stood in front of Congress (his friends and former co-workers) and explained that these scanners were the future of security ("and," he neglected to add, "the future of ME getting very, very rich and horrible"). Congress listened, and for the first time they mandated a piece of equipment for use in American airports. Remember: These were politicians with no security credentials. They decided Chertoff was an honorable man and went along with everything he said.
Of course, after a little while it came out that these scanners were useless. I could strap a bomb capable of taking down a 747 to my body and walk right through a body scanner. Nobody would catch me. I'd rather not explain exactly how, but this German man was able to sneak a fake bomb through the same scanners without being caught. And he did it in Germany, a country where "airport security officer" isn't a synonym for "failed Walmart cashier."
Above: the pudgy, sweat-stained blue line.
Decisions like this get made because Wall Street and Congress are better at communicating with each other than the TSA and the NSA. If someone with a history in Capitol Hill has a product to sell, there's no need for feasibility tests or expert opinions. All that stuff cuts into check-writing time.
They Spend All Their Energy on Luggage
About 99.9 percent of travelers are just that: travelers. They want to get through security, buy a cup of coffee and some duty-free whiskey, then quietly drink and leech Wi-Fi from the airport McDonald's. These people pose no threat to anyone, and there's no point in even checking them. The very few terrorists that exist are like needles in a haystack. But the TSA's approach is to check every single piece of hay, in case it might actually be a needle.
The usual suspects. And also pretty much the only suspects.
But if you only check luggage and you don't check the person behind the luggage, how do you know he hasn't camouflaged something into the luggage that you can't find? Trust me: Hiding things is so easy to do, it isn't even funny. That's why the only luggage checks we do are to find things like aerosol cans, which might burst on their own. Otherwise, what we care about is intent.
I was at an airport in Newark once when a TSA search of my bags turned up a laser pointer pen I'd been given as a gift at a conference. They told me they had to confiscate it, because apparently laser pointers are just a couple-hundred degrees away from being the new box cutters. Many of you have probably lost trinkets and gadgets in the same way: Would you like to know how to get them back?
No. There is a better way.
I tell the handler, "OK, take it. But that pen is company property, so I'm going to need some sort of receipt."
He says, "What?"
"This pen isn't owned by me. My boss is going to need to see some proof that you took it."
So he calls a supervisor and asks, "Where do we keep the receipts?"
His supervisor says, "What the fuck are you talking about, we don't give receipts."
He explains the situation, and his boss asks, "What's the contraband?"
"A little laser pointer."
"Give it the fuck back! What do you care?"
Two seconds go by and he hands it back to me. It's as easy as that.
Cracked Travel Tip #407: Claim that absolutely anything the TSA asks about is a "personal massager."
The TSA treats each traveler the same because of some stupid idea that everything needs to be fair. Security needs to be done due to risk -- and risk means that in Israel we don't check luggage, we check people. And I'm not talking about racial profiling here; that's a product of poor training. Regardless of race or creed, people with bombs strapped to their body behave in similar ways. The TSA claims that finding IEDs at the checkpoint is their number one goal. But it's the people who mean us harm that we should look out for. Instead of checking intent, they check luggage.
And they don't even do it well: I have orthopedic insoles in my shoes made from composite material. On the machines, that composite looks identical to plastic explosives. I put them on the belt every time, and no one -- NO ONE -- ever questions my shoes. Some security experts suspect that the TSA has never once caught a terrorist at a checkpoint. And we know that at least 16 of them have flown into U.S. airports since 2004.
But you can damn well bet their luggage was vetted.
Meanwhile, Israel's airport security actually has stopped a bomb from getting on a plane using Israeli screening techniques. And what were those techniques?
Eye Contact Isn't Emphasized
Try playing the eye-contact game with your friends or co-workers some time. Make extended eye contact with someone you see regularly and try to hold their gaze. If you don't draw direct attention to it, they'll usually look away. Someone with something to hide, a bad conscience, will cast their eyes away much more quickly. That's what our security guards are doing: We watch the way you move your eyes.
But hey, shoes are terrifying, too.
We interview every single customer several times, but we don't really care what you have to say. We're paying attention to your behavior. Terrorism is a pretty nerve-wracking thing. That shoe bomber in 2001 failed because he literally sweated through his bomb. Obviously, looking out for anxiety is going to net you some false positives. Lots of people just hate flying. But it's easy to weed them out from the men planning to commit mass murder.
At Ben Gurion Airport, we get travelers from their car to their gate in 25 minutes. When was the last time that happened to you in an American airport? Probably never, because a dozen 747s worth of cranky travelers can't take their shoes and coats off, pull their laptops out of their luggage, and queue up for pat downs without chaos.
But at least you know Janice Whittaker of Tempe, Arizona, hasn't been radicalized by al-Qaida.
It's different in Israel. You come in, we ask you questions, and we have well-trained people determine if you have any harmful plans. They look at your eyes and your body language, not your loafers. We have threats in the airport, but nothing deadly has happened to us, thank God, in the last 40 years.
Related: Contact (LIVE PODCAST)
"Security" Happens in One Place
In security, if the target is moving, you have to move with the target. There is one place for security in an American airport, and it's that long line where you wait for Larry, a TSA worker from Des Moines with exceptionally coarse hands, to fondle you. Everything past that line is a lawless free-for-all of Sbarros and tacky souvenir shops. But even kids smuggling pot back from Amsterdam can keep it together through a 12-second wanding. Terrorists are made of sterner stuff.
And they rarely travel with two young kids.
Security should happen in rings, so different teams can check each other's work and make sure no suicide bombers slip through. All it takes is one baggage handler ogling a passenger while she takes off her shoes and boom, Jeff the Terrorist gets through security free and clear.
But thanks to the layout of modern American airports, he doesn't even have to get through security. The TSA conveniently packs hundreds of travelers together in cramped security lines. Terrorists love crowds because they can inflict the most harm that way. Anyone who watches the news knows that. So what does American airport security do? It gathers folks together in long lines BEFORE they've been scanned at all.
The line is the fourth safest shape in nature.
What really scares me when I'm in America is picking up my luggage. If you've ever picked someone up from a flight, you know there's no sort of scrutiny around who gets to walk in there. It's like the TSA thinks the terrorists have some sort of death grudge against planes. So if we can keep them from getting on one, they won't bother murdering a bunch of people clustered around baggage claim.
There Is Literally No Intelligence
The United States and Canada don't have anything that puts all the relevant data from every security agency on the same page. The FBI, the CIA, and the NSA all have their own different databases. Bush nominated John Negroponte as the director of national intelligence with the express goal of fixing this.
It was an uphill battle, to say the least.
He failed. As of 2012, 46 percent of federal security agencies still failed to share leads. Only 15 percent shared with any kind of frequency. Eleven years has been enough time for the TSA to decide pocket knives are safe again, but law enforcement agencies still share info about as well as starving dogs share kibble. In Israel, we have the same types of agencies, but they all share information to one single point of contact. That's how we stop 90 percent of threats. We share information.
I did an experiment once. I asked MI5, "Let's say a known terrorist is boarding a plane in Heathrow, going to JFK. How do you alert the Americans?" They responded, "By fax." To Langley. Which is fine -- fax is old but instant. So then I asked how long it takes Langley to alert JFK.
Carrier pigeons are faster.
They don't have a direct line to the airport. This is how people like the underwear bomber make it through airport security. Someone somewhere knows there's a problem, but he can't talk to anyone useful. This should not happen in a world with text messaging, let alone phones.
We Don't Think Our Airports Through
If there's one airport-related thing Americans are good at, it's using lots and lots of glass. Here's Pearson International, of Canada:
The lovely Ronald Reagan airport in Washington, D.C:
And, glassiest of all, Dulles Airport, hero of Die Hard 2:
Now all that glass is lovely, and it saves a bundle on lighting, but have you ever wondered if it's all ... y'know, explosion-proof? Because it totally isn't. Which makes each of these lovely airports a build-your-own shrapnel bomb kit (just add gunpowder!). Two of these airports are in the capital of the United States -- you know the security officers there are looking out for bombs every single day.
What happens if they find one?
In Israeli airports, the security checks are done in a small, blast-proof area with a few people in it at a time. So if there's a bomb, we only have to evacuate one room. Not an entire terminal full of drunken businessmen and sleep-deprived families on vacation. Do you know what would happen if I made a fake bomb out of Play-Doh and wires and hid it in my checked bags? In America or Canada, they'd shut down the terminal.
Um, nobody do that OK? -Cracked Editorial
So you don't need to explode anything -- take these bags into 20 airports around the country and you'll close them all for days. Air traffic in the United States would grind to a halt, all with materials terrorists could raid from a preschool.
Robert Evans is Cracked's head of Dick Joke Journalism. If you have a story you'd like to tell him or a whistle you'd like to blow, click here for his contact info.