The TSA and Security Theater: Understanding American Airport Security Following 9/11

TSA Security Theater Following the attacks of September 11th, Congress passed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), creating the Transportation Security Agency (TSA). The TSA replaced private security screening companies with one government agency. Since then, air travelers have bowed to pat downs, bans on water bottles and other inconvenient, intrusive procedures as the “new normal” at our nation’s airports. But does any of this make us safer?

Security Theater and the TSA

Security expert Bruce Schneier coined the term “security theater” to describe some of the TSA's procedures and screening practices. Security theater provides the appearance of enhanced security without actually making anyone more secure.

Since 9/11, the TSA has implemented new screening procedures on an almost constant basis. The structual problem with these new screening procedures is two-fold. First, these procedures are almost always in response to past threats, not in anticipation of future threats. Second, average Americans suffer the consequences for years to come in the form of ever-increasing screening procedures and lost time.

Sadly, the TSA's accumulated procedures and screening practices are actually causing more American deaths. Cornell University researchers found decreased air travel after 9/11 led to an extra 242 road fatalities per month. In all, the researchers estimate that 1,200 people died as a result of decreased air travel. In 2007, the Cornell researchers studied TSA screening procedures implemented in 2002, and found that they decreased air travel by 6% – leading to an additional 129 road fatalities in the last three months of 2002. In terms of casualties, that's the same as blowing up a fully loaded Boeing 737.

The TSA's Security Theater Timeline

There have been significant and numerous changes in the TSA’s security theater since 9/11. Here are some of the highlights and lowlights:

  • September 12, 2001: During the months after 9/11, National Guard troops are posted at the nation's airports. Their guns are empty.

  • November 19, 2001: President Bush signs the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA), replacing private security screening with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

  • November 22, 2001: British national Richard Reid tries to blow up a Paris-Miami flight using explosives hidden in his shoes. The TSA institutes a random shoe-screening policy.

  • April 2002: The TSA deploys 6,000 explosive trace detection machines, or "puffers," at all American airports. Fewer than 100 machines are deployed and the plan is scrapped. The total cost of the project is more than $30 million.

  • September 2004: The TSA orders all jackets and belts removed and X-rayed. Visitors banned from gate area.

  • March 31, 2005: TSA adds all lighters to its list of prohibited items.

  • December 2005: In response to the Madrid train bombings the year before, the TSA starts the Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) program to secure America's transportation infrastructure beyond airports.

  • August 10, 2006: All passengers now required to remove shoes during security screening.

  • August 10, 2006: In response to a foiled plot using liquid explosives in Britain, the TSA adds all liquids, gels and aerosols to its list of prohibited items.

  • September 2006: The TSA implements its 3-1-1 Rule, allowing liquids in 3-ounce containers that fit in a single 1-quart plastic bag.

  • 2007: The TSA repeals the lighter ban and the agency's chief Kip Hawley says that taking lighters away is "security theater."

  • October 2007: In response to intelligence about remote-detonated explosives, the TSA starts training screeners to carry out additional screening of remote control toys.

  • Christmas Day, 2009: Nigerian citizen Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tries to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit using explosives concealed in his underwear. The TSA orders mandatory full-body scans for all passengers. Passengers who refuse to be scanned will receive a physical pat-down search instead.

  • Early 2010: The TSA starts introducing full-body scanners that use backscatter radiation to produce effectively nude images of passengers. By the end of the year, more than 500 scanners are operational.

  • August 2010: The TSA achieves its goal of screening 100% of all checked baggage and cargo on board domestic flights.

  • October 2010: Saudi intelligence discovers a plot to blow up aircraft with explosives hidden in printer cartridges. The TSA bans all printer cartridges from carry-on luggage.

  • November 16, 2010: Hundreds of body scan images are leaked to the press. The leak causes a wave of demands to ban the fully-body scanners. In response to public outcry, Congress orders the TSA to purchase machines that generate a more generic picture of passengers' bodies.

  • November 17, 2010: The TSA institutes new "enhanced" pat-down procedures that allow screeners to touch passengers' inner thighs, groins, buttocks and breasts – areas previously off limits.

  • End of 2011: Every U.S. airport has at least one full-body scanner.

  • March 2012: Shoe removal rules are relaxed to allow passengers younger than 12 and older than 75 to keep their shoes on during screening.

  • July 6, 2014: The TSA bans powerless devices on direct flights to the United States from certain overseas airports. Smartphones, laptops and any device with dead batteries "will not be permitted onboard aircraft."

Nowadays, the TSA runs background checks on all travelers before they even arrive at the airport. Using the Department of Homeland Security’s Automated Targeting System, a massive database that employs algorithms to identify potential terrorists, the TSA automatically places thousands of travelers on the so-called selectee list, which earns them an “SSSS” stamp on their boarding pass and extra screening every time they fly. For travelers who want to avoid extra screening, there’s the TSA’s PreCheck program, which lets passengers keep their shoes, belts and jackets on and skip lengthy lines in exchange for a background check, fingerprinting and a fee.

The TSA's 95% Failure Rate in Rehearsals

TSA Security Scanner

Although security procedures have gotten more aggressive under the TSA, detection rates were no better in 2005 than they were before September 11, 2001 – according to the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). An undercover investigation by the DHS in 2015, found that the TSA successfully detects bombs, guns and other dangerous items in only one out of 20 cases.

Numbers don’t lie. The TSA’s failure rate at detecting weapons is 70% at some major airports. And during undercover tests, that failure rate increases. In 2010, TSA director John Pistole said every gun, bomb part or knife got past screeners at some airports during undercover tests. During covert tests conducted by the DHS in 2015, TSA agents failed to detect guns and fake explosives 95 percent of the time. In one test, an undercover DHS agent was stopped and received an "enhanced" pat-down search after setting off a metal detector, but the TSA screener failed to detect the fake bomb taped to the agent’s back.

The U.S. hasn’t suffered any major attacks since 9/11. However, incidents like shoe bomber Richard Reid weren’t thwarted by the TSA – they were stopped by watchful passengers.

How To SPOT a Terrorist

TSA Security X-ray

Since 2006, the TSA has spent more than $1 billion on training so-called Behavior Detection Officers (BDOs) who watch passengers for suspicious behavior so they can be singled out for extra screening at airports. The program is called Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT).

The specific behaviors that BDOs are trained to look for are supposed to be secret, but a leaked copy of the behavior checklist includes fidgeting, sweating, yawning and “suspicious” eye movements. SPOT operates on a point system. Sweaty palms and whistling earns travelers one point. Arrogance, a cold stare and good posture earn travelers two points. Other indicators include a recently shaved face, looking at the floor, clearing your throat, and complaining about the screening process. Travelers who get enough points can be flagged for extra screening.

Since its inception in 2006, and after spending more than $1 billion, the SPOT program has only identified one man who could be called a terrorist. Kevin Brown, a Jamaican citizen, was waiting for his flight back home at Orlando International Airport in 2008. He checked his two bags, but not before a BDO flagged him as suspicious and ordered extra screening of his checked luggage – which contained pipes, caps, fuses, fuel and a handy printout explaining how to put them all together to make a bomb.

Fewer than one out of the 30,000 passengers who are flagged every year as “suspicious” and are searched, end up getting arrested (usually for carrying drugs, undeclared currency or having outstanding warrants or being in the country illegally). A report by the Government Accountability Office in 2013 surveyed more than 400 scientific studies and found no evidence that terrorists can be identified by the behaviors on the SPOT checklist, and recommended that the TSA cut funding for SPOT and stop training new BDOs.

The Israeli Art of Conversation

Israel faces more terrorist threats than any other country in the world, yet their airport security is a model of sensible, measured response to a very real danger.

The screening process at Ben Gurion International Airport starts with a vehicle and bag inspection before passengers even enter the airport. Once inside the airport, passengers must pass through increasing layers of security, facing heavier and heavier scrutiny until they board. The level of technology at Ben Gurion hasn’t changed much since the 1980s. Metal detectors, X-ray scanners and bomb-sniffing dogs are still considered state-of-the-art.

Israeli security screeners approach passengers to ask about their travel plans as standard practice. If passengers' answers seem practiced or implausible, security personnel can order extra screening. Instead of a checklist, Israeli security screeners rely on intuition and the art of conversation to judge passengers’ intentions. Science bears this out as a more effective technique than a behavior checklist.

Under the rules of the SPOT program, a BDO may see a passenger they feel is suspicious. However, the BDO cannot order extra screening unless the passenger displays approved "suspicious" behaviors like clearing their throat or looking at the floor. Since BDOs are supposed to remain undercover, they cannot approach passengers to gauge their intentions through conversation. That forces American airport security to rely on body language alone, which is actually worse than chance at identifying liars and others with concealed intent.

There are three problems with the Israeli screening procedures, however: First, Israelis in general are used to higher levels of security scrutiny as part of their overall culture. This means both a greater acceptance of the idea of profiling and police interaction, but also a greater deal of confidence and trust in security and police forces.

Perhaps more importantly, there are potential Constitutional issues. Profiling – racial or otherwise – does not currently violate Fourth Amendment protections, but no one is eager to test this in a court of law. Still, as proponents of the Israeli system are quick to point out, their profiling is behavioral, relying less upon unsuccessful pseudoscience and more upon a general “feel” officers trained in behavioral sciences get from interacting directly with travelers.

Finally, there are concerns that the Israeli system simply won’t scale. Still, it’s worth asking how the Israeli system applied to the United States could get any worse.

Beyond Security Theater

The TSA's poor performance record has led some airports back to the private screening companies that handled security before 9/11. Under the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program, an approval process that typically takes years, airports can hire private security screeners. The only requirement is that the private outfits maintain the same level of security as the TSA. More than 20 local and international airports have joined the program – with San Francisco and Kansas City already onboard and more set to join as the TSA promises waiting times will reach three hours at busy airports during the spring and summer travel seasons.

Private screeners at SPP airports have proven themselves to be more efficient and more effective than the TSA. A report by a House oversight committee in 2013 found that private screeners at San Francisco International Airport were much better at detecting prohibited items than TSA screeners at LAX, and wait times were shorter. As a result of the report, calls are growing in Congress to abolish the TSA and return to private screening companies.