The New York Times reports that the Government Accountability Office has taken issue with the Transportation Safety Administration for squandering $1 billion on voodoo.
Like the rest of us, airport security screeners like to think they can read body language. The Transportation Security Administration has spent some $1 billion training thousands of “behavior detection officers” to look for facial expressions and other nonverbal clues that would identify terrorists.
But critics say there’s no evidence that these efforts have stopped a single terrorist or accomplished much beyond inconveniencing tens of thousands of passengers a year. The T.S.A. seems to have fallen for a classic form of self-deception: the belief that you can read liars’ minds by watching their bodies.
A ridiculous waste of money? Don’t be so naïve. John Pistole, the TSA’s administrator, isn’t some yokel from flyover country who buys magic beans. Sure, this may play with the vast majority of Americans who have yet to grasp the fictions upon which we rely, like cops having some sixth sense about crime, judges being capable of distinguishing sincerity or jurors being able to tell who is lying. Grow up.
Most people think liars give themselves away by averting their eyes or making nervous gestures, and many law-enforcement officers have been trained to look for specific tics, like gazing upward in a certain manner. But in scientific experiments, people do a lousy job of spotting liars. Law-enforcement officers and other presumed experts are not consistently better at it than ordinary people even though they’re more confident in their abilities.
What the TSA wants to do is racially profile. They want to target dark skin, Muslims, the sort of people who everyone suspects could be terrorists, but are forbidden from targeting because racial profiling isn’t allowed. So they come up with programs they know to be utterly idiotic as an excuse to target who they want.
So what if the person stopped and questioned, subject to “enhanced” search, happens to have an olive complexion. He twitched his left eye twice, which everybody knows is body language for “I have a bomb in my pants.” Prove he didn’t? Prove he doesn’t deserve to be searched? Hah!
By pretending that they’re engaged in a real program, especially one that has great surface appeal to the masses who believe in magic powers, the TSA has carefully crafted a means to accomplish an end that would never be allowed otherwise. And now, the GAO is trying to cut the funding because it isn’t in on the joke.
The T.S.A. program was reviewed last year by the federal government’s Government Accountability Office, which recommended cutting funds for it because there was no proof of its effectiveness. That recommendation was based on the meager results of the program as well as a survey of the scientific literature by the psychologists Charles F. Bond Jr. and Bella M. DePaulo, who analyzed more than 200 studies.
Empirical studies? Meh. The public doesn’t care about empiricism. Numbers give people a headache. But they love to believe in things they can’t see, and by chalking it up to their beloved common sense, all is right with the world.
But Pistole is doing what he can to play the crowd, knowing that without pretending that voodoo is real, the TSA would be relegated to the grunt work of annoying Americans. The problem is that Pistole’s mission of racially profiling isn’t any more effective than the feigned mission of following the path of glances in detecting terrorists.
The T.S.A.’s administrator, John S. Pistole, defended its behavior-detection program last year by saying it identified “high-risk passengers at a significantly higher rate than random screening.” The accountability office report challenged the methodology behind that assertion and questioned the cost-effectiveness of the program. It noted that fewer than 1 percent of the more than 30,000 passengers a year who are identified as suspicious end up being arrested, and that the offenses (like carrying drugs or undeclared currency) have not been linked to terrorist plots.
Is a one percent success rate, assuming the accuracy of the number, worthwhile? That’s hard to say. What probably doesn’t make it onto anyone’s radar is that it may be unlikely that any of the targets of the TSA’s
racial profiling behavior-detection program are actually engaged in wrong doing. What if (bear with me a moment) none of the tens of thousands of people traveling by air are engaged in terrorism? What if there is only the occasional, say one every few years, lone nutjob wannabe terrorist to be found? A million people a day fly. Do the math.
The fear of the government is that if that one terrorist, every few years, manages to blow up a plane, all hell will rain down on the government for its ineffectiveness and failure to protect our nation. The other fear is that huge bureaucracies, providing tens, hundreds, of thousands of jobs, not to mention positions of importance for guys like Pistole, will lose their funding and reason to exist if they don’t find a guy every once in a while.
Fear, the next best thing to full employment and a pension.
This isn’t a matter of cynicism. Indeed, just the contrary. It would be cynical to think, as the New York Times apparently does, that the upper echelon of American government believes in magic. Don’t be ridiculous. They may be venal, but they are by no means stupid. They are certainly smart enough to realize that they can scam the public into believing that by taking off shoes at lines at airports, they can perpetuate the belief that they are protecting us from the shoe bombers. And we continue to take off our shoes, and raise our arms in the nudie scanners that former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is hawking.
But if this billion dollars is being wasted to perpetrate a fraud on the American public to circumvent our prohibition of racial profiling, wouldn’t we do better to come to grips with it, to save the billion being thrown at snake oil salesmen holding training sessions for behavioral-detection specialists whose only real skill is being able to distinguish light from dark?
Why? Because the government would give the money back to us? Because the government wouldn’t use it to fund the F-35 Lightning II fighter overcharges? And besides, it’s not like the American public doesn’t want to believe in fantasies, like common sense or the ability to tell from body language who is a terrorist and who is a toddler.