TSA’s Billion Dollar Scam

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.

15 comments on “TSA’s Billion Dollar Scam

  1. Mannie

    This behavioral analysis stuff is a direct result of the Right’s demand for “Profiling,” (Whatever the hell that means.) The Israelis do it, and it appears to work. Here, it gets mired in bureaucracy and BS procedure. The US Government is collectively to stupid to profile effectively. No surprises, here.

    1. SHG Post author

      No, Mannie. Contrary to what non-lawyers believe when applied to everyone but them, profiling is unconstitutional with good reason. I would call it an irony that Americans are all for profiling provided they aren’t the ones being profiled, but it’s not irony, just selfishness and ignorance.

    2. rsm

      The example everyone likes to point to is Israel, but applying the Israeli experience to the US is deeply, deeply flawed from the outset. There are a couple of basic things to note:
      1. Scale – The US sees a magnitude or two more passengers per day than does Israel, not to mention the numbers of flights, major airports etc. etc. – This is by far the most significant issue.

      “According to Isaac Yeffet, the former security chief for El Al Israel Airlines, the United States should adopt El Al’s security approach of ensuring that every passenger is interviewed by a well-trained agent before check-in, a move that involves profiling passengers, which he said is not discriminatory.”
      – This is the kind of thing we’re talking about. O’hare had 66 million+ passengers in 2012. Good luck.

      2. Amount of data – Anecdotally, the Israeli service responsible for airline security sifts far more data on passengers than body language and skin color. Not limited to passenger data, but also number of observations, thoroughness of the baggage checks etc. (This is based on the last couple of reliable stories I read about this, but I’d have to do more research to state this with more than 70% certainty)

      3. Level of training, pay, etc. for the relevant staff – There is a differential, and it matters, which doesn’t affect the lack of validity of the underlying science of profiling as described my SHG. However, the kind of profiling done by El-Al’s security and Israeli security forces doesn’t rely on skin color, body language, or any other single factor (see point #2 about amount of data), which requires more time, more pay and significantly more training, and a very high tolerance for a security state. Pistole yelling about threats only lasts so long. The signal to noise ratio is a bit higher in Israel.

      1. SHG Post author

        True, but I’m disinclined to worry about Mannie’s details (like the Israeli comparison or the reference to the “right,” which is completely inappropriate here) when his comment is fundamentally misguided.

        In other words, when a comment goes off track, I try not to let follow-up comments go further down the path.

  2. Lonely Libertarian

    Well the whole airport screening thing is theater designed to keep the sheep we have become docile and under control.

    Only two steps were needed after 9-11

    1. Real cockpit door security – locked at leaving the gate – unlocked when the jetway connects at destination
    2. Increase in air marshal training, competency and numbers – getting to the point where the p of a AM on a flight was ~1.0

    this could have been done at far lower cost and way less disruption than what we have done.

    It would certainly be less embarrassing

  3. j a higginbotham

    In place of trained “behavior detection officers” wouldn’t it be cheaper to use trained “olfactory detection officers” and have suspects be sniffed out by dogs?

  4. Fubar

    SHG wrote:

    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, … ?

    From your lips to Gawd’s ear. But I’m less certain that Pistole’s purpose is merely to practice profiling by another name. I think the overarching component of Pistole’s purpose, and TSA’s generally, is to entrench and expand TSA’s purview and budget by any means necessary. That’s an iron law of bureaucracy.

    Profiling might, or might not, be useful to that purpose at any given time. But “behavioral training” classes for TSA employees is a twofer or even a threefer.

    It’s a whiz-bang shiny thing to throw money at, and pretend is useful, thereby justifying next year’s budget increase plea to Congress.

    It’s useful to establish a record of presumed authority by repetition. Behavioral profiling could become a useful excuse for any outrage that TSA might next commit next upon hapless travelers. The more bafflegab new techniques for “keeping us safe” that TSA can throw at the wall now, the more likely some is to stick when it’s needed later.

    Praise for behavioral training is also addressed to the TSA troops. It rallies the troops by reinforcing the Dunning-Kruger effect: “See, our boss says we are really really good at spotting terr’ists now that we’ve had this state of the art behavioral training.”

    So what’s not to like about behavioral profiling? Whether it is a fraud doesn’t matter — at least if you are an ambitious bureaucrat hoping to become known as a leader of men and savior of the nation.

      1. Fubar

        And I read it quite literally. This must be the first time that happened in the history of the intarwebz.

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