TSA’s 20 security layers — productive or beneficial?

by Ned Levi on March 19, 2012

TSA full body scanner by By Steven Perez, http://www.flickr.com/photos/silas216/

Earlier this month, my colleague, Charlie Leocha wrote about Jonathan Corbett, who determined how to go through TSA’s (Transportation Security Administration) full body scanners with a palm sized metal case concealed in his shirt. To make sure his effort wasn’t a fluke he went through TSA security with the case at two airports.

I’ve been an outspoken critic of TSA’s full body scanners, based on health, safety, and efficacy grounds. Despite scientists calling for an independent study of the health effects of TSA full body scanners, TSA Administrator John Pistole said, “My strong belief is those types of machines are still completely safe,” and continues to avoid the independent study he promised to conduct.

Even before Mr. Corbett showed he could get a metal object through TSA security, I explained how easy explosives could be secreted through one of TSA’s full body scanners.

I concluded long ago, that the scanners, even if safe, are a “colossal waste” of government funds and that TSA’s increased dependence on them actually makes us less safe, because they are too easily defeated by dedicated terrorists wishing to bring weapons and explosives on board commercial, scheduled airplanes.

In defense of full body scanners, TSA Blogger Bob Burns said, in part,

“With all that said, it is one layer of our 20 layers of security (Behavior Detection, Explosives Detection Canines, Federal Air Marshals, , etc.) and is not a machine that has all the tools we need in one handy device. We’ve never claimed it’s the end all be all.”

Considering Mr. Burns statement, it’s important to examine TSA’s “Layers of Security.”

Therefore, I’ll briefly describe and discuss each of the 20 layers.

1. Intelligence – This should be an important security asset for our travelers, yet, to date there have been serious failures of air travel intelligence, such as Richard Reid the “shoe bomber,” and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “panty bomber.” A major improvement in the quality of TSA intelligence could greatly increase air passenger safety.

2. Customs and Border Protection – If TSA is talking about intelligence, then CBP would help air passenger security, otherwise, most contact which CBP has with air travel is after passengers and cargo arrive from locations outside the United States.

3. Joint Terrorism Taskforce – The JTTF is a partnership between various US law enforcement agencies, charged with taking action against terrorism, most importantly by the sharing of intelligence between agencies. While this important, it’s not a separate layer, but part of the intelligence layer.

4. No-fly list and passenger pre-screening – On the surface the no fly list and passenger pre-screening should be worthwhile for air transportation security, but many have cited the no-fly list as prone to false positives and easily defeated. I seriously question the reliability of the list myself, considering two of its famous failures; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Faisal Shahzad.

5. Crew vetting – If done well, this would add to air passenger security.

6. VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams) – TSA describes VIPR as “Comprised of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detection officers and explosives detection canine teams.” The assets of this layer are part of other layers, or have nothing to do with air transportation.

7. Canines – I have called for a dramatic increase in the use of canines to inspect air passengers and cargo for explosives for a long time, but have seen little evidence a meaningful increase has occurred in recent years.

8. Behavior Detection Officers – I have called for TSA to adopt the Israeli security model for air transportation security of which behavior assessment is a core element. Unfortunately, while it would appear this layer is increasing in use, it is apparently still not a core element of TSA security.

9. Travel Document Checker – The effectiveness of this layer is highly overrated and easily defeated. In fact, security guru, Bruce Schneier, has explained how, with a stolen credit card, a fake ID, and a real boarding pass this layer is easily defeated.

10. Checkpoint Transportation Security Officers – These are the TSA agents who man the airport security checkpoints. There is no doubt that TSA security checkpoints can provide increased air transportation security. The problem is, to date, their procedures and training are less than desirable, in my opinion.

11. Checked luggage – TSA’s inspection of checked luggage is important and does make air travelers safer.

12. Transportation Security Inspectors (Field Inspections) – These inspectors assess TSA personnel, their jobs, and TSA procedures and rules while in “the field.” This is an essential part of any good security plan if done well.

13. Random Employee Screening – It’s impossible to argue with the need for this layer of security.

14. Bomb Appraisal Officers (Guidance, Education, etc.) – These personnel enhance air transportation security.

15. Federal Air Marshall program – While I continue to question the quality of the Federal Air Marshall program, the program could be effective in improving air transportation security, if its rules, regulations and training were substantially improved.

16. Federal Flight Deck Officers (Pilots get guns) – It’s my belief that pilots, flight engineers and navigators should never leave the cockpit in the case of an attack on their plane, so as to maintain their control of it. They should never take on the role of “buckaroos,” by attempting to shoot terrorists, which could result in loosing control of the cockpit. It’s my belief that this security layer is ill-conceived and should be abandoned.

17. Trained Flight Crew (Self Defense Program) – Self defense training of flight crew members who work in airplane cabins improves air transportation security.

18. Law Enforcement Officers (Law Officers’ training for being armed) – Requiring training for any law enforcement officer who flies on a plane while armed is a good idea, but I question the program which requires little more than 1.5 to 2 hours of training.

19. Hardened Cockpit Door – This is by far the most important air transportation security improvement TSA has made to date.

20. Passengers – TSA can’t take credit for this, and I don’t understand how TSA can call it one of their security layers, but there is no doubt that since, and including 9/11, the actions of passengers in the air has enhanced air transportation security more than any single action by TSA, other than its requirement of hardened cockpit doors.

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  • Anonymous

    Faisal Shahzad was on his way out of the country (without a bomb onboard); good riddance!
    The underwear bomber did not have a US VISA but was allowed to board in Europe.
    The shoe bomber bought a one-way ticket with CASH, had no luggage, was initially denied boarding and then came back the next day and tried again (in Europe).
    One thing is common with all three is that their bombs failed. Maybe they were not that smart to begin with. I hate to think what a real ‘smart’, deranged person can do and whether the TSA’s layers would catch him or her. Maybe vigilant citizens and travelers is the best defense.

  • Anonymous

    Here’s another great article I just saw today.  TSA pats downs child on wheelchair. It made the headline on drudge report.
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2116881/TSA-subject-child-wheelchair-invasive-airport-security-tests-Chicago.html

  • Anonymous

    Very informative article and far more factual than previous hatchet jobs.  Since previous articles had deconstructed and ridiculed the TSA, I had almost given up on a relatively informative article here.  Even with the snapshot layman opinions on many points, the article is the best in a long time.

    The more I read this, the more I find the writers knew what they were doing:
    “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

    Now if we could all just work together to insure domestic tranquility and provide for the common defense.  The current U.S. House thinks most functions of government should be privatized, including transportation security in the face of known threats to the blessings of liberty.  The preamble sure seems to make these government’s primary objectives.  How do you delegate a primary function of government and still say you are accountable and directly responsible to uphold the Constitution?  Handing it off removes us, the people, another degree from Constitution’s writers intent.  

    In other words, if we don’t like the way the TSA and DHS are run, then elect people who do want effective agencies as an essential function of government, not people who shrug it off to others outside government.  

  • Anonymous

    Hi Ned, I would like to know (if you know) whether passengers who use the private screeners in airports that OPTED-OUT using the TSA feel any better than passengers who use TSA operated airport screenings.

    BTW, thanks for the good article.

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/ned/ Ned Levi

    To the best of my knowledge there are currently 16 airports nationally which have private screeners: San Francisco International Airport; Kansas City International Airport; Greater Rochester International Airport; Sioux Falls Regional Airport; Jackson Hole Airport; Tupelo Regional Airport; Key West International Airport; Charles M. Schultz-Sonoma County Airport; Roswell Industrial Air Center; and seven airports in Montana: Frank Wiley Field; Sidney Richland Regional; Dawson Community; L.M. Clayton; Wokal Field; Havre City County; and Lewiston Municipal. As you can see, these are mostly small airports, although San Francisco is the 8th busiest in the US, and Kansas City is 32nd, while the rest aren’t in the top 50, and some are extremely small.

    I’ve found that the experience in very small airports is very different that large airports. I believe you have to compare similar size airports to get a valid answer to your question.

    I’ve not seen any surveys comparing the passenger experience between TSA security screening and private security screening. Private security screening must use TSA rules, by the way. They can’t create their own set of rules.

    There was a study conducted by the House Transportation Committee in 2011, which detailed a comparison of security at San Francisco International Airport, and Los Angeles International Airport, private vs. TSA. It found that private security personnel were more efficient, screening 65 percent more passengers per employee than TSA, and estimated that the government could save $1 billion over five years by using private screeners at the nation’s 35 largest airports.

    TSA disputes the comparison, but a problem is they keep their performance data so secret, it’s hard to tell.

    I’m not so sure the comparison holds much water, however, due to the scale of the two airports and their physical layouts. In 2010 LAX served 28,857,755 passenger boardings, while SFO had only 19,359,003 passenger boardings, or just 67% or the boardings at LAX. Moreover, in my opinion, the physical plants are hardly comparable.

    I fly to LAX quite often, and just periodically to SFO. Personally, I’ve not noticed any difference in the passenger experience at Security in these airport, from a personnel prospective.

    I’ve come to believe that the deciding factor in how well the security personnel operate at any particular airport has less to do with the TSA TSO’s themselves, and their private counterparts, than the various individual airport security managers, and their supervisors working for TSA or a private security company. If you get a top notch manager, and they make sure the supervisors are doing their job well, the TSA or private security company front line personnel at the Security areas do a good job and act very professionally. If the opposite is true, then the whole operation “goes south.”

    I’ve seen great improvement in TSA TSO’s at airports in the last year, and that’s made this passenger’s experience far better. That being said, I continue to have a major problem with TSA’s rules and regulations, many of which make little sense to me, and with their overall approach to air transportation security. I continue to believe there is no way TSA can call their full body scanners safe, considering the huge lack of any longer term health and safety data concerning the scanner units, which regardless of health and safety issues, I believe don’t adequately add to passenger security in airports or in the air.

    I continue to opt-out of full body scanners and opt for an enhanced patdown, in public, which while somewhat intrusive is safe. I hope to be able to take advantage of the new TSA “Pre” program in the future as TSA rolls it out to the country’s largest airports this year, and to more airlines than currently participate. This will enable me to keep my shoes, belt, light weight jacket, and sweater on, when going through security, and keep my liquids baggie, and my laptop in my bag instead of a bin. It’s also my understanding that full body scanners will not be used in the TSA “Pre” security lines, and instead they will check passengers with magnetometers (metal detectors). I’m for that.

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