TSA budget: 1,000 more strip-search machines

by Edward Hasbrouck on February 3, 2010


The Obama Administration announced their fiscal year 2010 budget proposal today. Under the administration’s proposal for DHS appropriations, the TSA’s annual budget would increase by more than a billion dollars from 2009 to 2011, with most of that going toward the purchase of “up to 1,000″ new virtual strip-search (”Whole Body Imaging” or, in the latest euphemistic language of the budget, “Advanced Imaging Technology”) machines.

Up to a point, it was possible to argue that the TSA was still being operated on auto-pilot by holdovers from the previous administration — as indeed it still is. But the President has had plenty of time in the year since his inauguration to clean house, to put someone new in charge, or simply to give the legacy administrators new marching orders (for which we gave his transition team an explicit itemized blueprint to bring the TSA within the rule of law).

The President’s budget makes clear his deliberate choice to identify his Administration with, and to perpetuate and expand, the TSA’s culture of disregard for civil liberties, human rights, or judicial accountability. It also makes clear the need for Americans who oppose that march toward the abyss to let their members of Congress and the Senate know how they feel about being inspected by virtual voyeurs who themselves are protected from public view in a private back room, and then being groped, if they are wearing a sanitary napkin or a padded bra or anything else underneath their clothes, every time they want to exercise their right to move about the country.

Originally published on PapersPlease.org.

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  • Michelle

    So I’m getting the impression you are against these machines. You message is so subtle. So what do you propose instead? The current system/process obviously isn’t working. Let’s hear some alternative options.

  • Hapgood

    Although some people believe the “virtual strip search” has the effect of violating civil liberties (especially the way the TSA is most likely to implement it), I don’t think that’s the intent. I don’t even think perpetuating and expanding the “culture of disregard for civil liberties, human rights, or judicial accountability” is anywhere on their conscious agenda, although the result may well have that effect.

    The Obama administration is following the Bush administration’s approach to airport security for the very same reason Bush started it. It’s all a matter of posterior-covering. Fixing the bureaucratic failures that allowed 9/11 to happen is difficult if not impossible, as evidenced by the occurrence of the very same failures after eight years (and after billions of dollars spent creating the massive Homeland Security bureaucracy that may have exacerbated the original failures). And even if either President figured out how to herd all those cats and make them work together, the results would be invisible to the public.

    Politicians need to show voters that they’re doing something. And what better way to do that than to create a bureaucracy dedicated to hassling and invading the privacy of all air travelers? It doesn’t matter whether the hassles and intrusion actually provide useful protection against terrorist threats– and indeed, the results of independent testing consistently show that it doesn’t. The important thing is that it shows everyone who flies that the government is clearly doing something. And the more intrusion and hassle it involves, the more effective it must be!

    The “security theater” actually does serve the useful purpose of reassuring some people that they shouldn’t avoid flying out of fear of terrorism. But that comes at a high cost to every traveler that may or not justify the benefit. And that cost may include convincing even more people than are reassured that they SHOULD avoid flying because the hassle is pointless and not worth enduring.

    So it’s not surprising at all that Obama would follow his honored predecessor’s lead in handing the TSA a mandate and blank check to “enhance airport security,” this time with “Advanced Imaging Technology.” It’s simply the easiest way to react to an embarrassing failure. It lets him show the traveling public that he is indeed doing something. It produces immediate results in the form of scanners showing up at airports as quickly as the manufacturer can ship them. And it deflects attention from the lack of any progress toward solving the intractable failures that will surely happen again.

    Complaining to our Congressmen probably won’t help anything, since they have their own posteriors to cover. They wouldn’t dare question or challenge the TSA, since that would invite opponents to brand them “soft on terrorism” in the next election– especially now that manufacturers of “Advanced Imaging Technology” have an unlimited license to spend some of their revenue from lucrative federal contracts on neutralizing any critics in Congress.

    Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about the TSA. We can only decide whether flying is actually worth the increasing hassles. (And the possible radiation hazard. With all the revelations about medical radiation overdoses, who will hold the ever-secretive TSA accountable for ensuring that their “backscatter” strip-search scanners are properly maintained and calibrated to deliver a “safe” dose?)

    If you do decide to fly, follow our friend Jason’s example and accept whatever the TSA chooses to inflict with serenity and good cheer. Let the hassles and humiliation wash over you like water beading off a duck’s feathers by staying focused exclusively on your destination. Alternatively, if you decide that flying is not worth the hassle, don’t be bitter or angry over what you have to give up. Buy some guidebooks, do some creative research, and generate your own excitement about destinations that don’t require flying. Regard it not as a limitation or a sacrifice, but a joyful opportunity to discover so many nearby places!

  • Keith Henrickson

    Personal opinion, pull all the security out of the terminal. The TSA would continue to screen checked luggage. Their CT scan machines are AWFULLY accurate, and this would reduce the chances of someone getting a large explosive into the belly of the plane, where it could detonate unobserved.

    On the plane, passengers have shown time and time again since 9/11, that they are perfectly willing to handle their own security. Someone starts acting bizarre, they duct-tape him to his seat. Someone tries to light his underwear, they strip him naked and put him in first class. Someone tries to light his shoe, they pummel him.

    Let’s say someone brings a gun on a plane. There’s 200 passengers and one gun. As Dirty Harry says, “Did I fire 5 shots, or 6?” Even if this guy is a crack shot, that still leaves 194 passengers to deal with him. My guess is, as soon as the gun came out, he’d be jumped before he had a chance to fire a shot.

    Passengers are very sensitive to the security environment on the planes they are on. Some guy pulls a blanket over his head (which I’ve done before, trying to block out the light and get some sleep), and they alert the flight crew who diverts the plane.

    Since 9/11, people understand that they are responsible for their own safety, and they have stepped up into this role. The nanny of the TSA is simply irrelevant.

    Will there be security incidents? I’d imagine so. Security is always a cat and mouse game. As the cat gets smarter, so do the mice. And there are more mice than cats. However, one of my friends did the math, and the odds of being killed in a terrorist attack on a plane are far less likely than those of being struck by lightning. We don’t all walk around with lightning rods on our heads ‘better safe than sorry.’. We can give up the security theater. There are enough responsible passengers who are quite willing to keep order on the plane.

  • Karen C.

    I like Keith’s comments. How can we band together and stop this expensive foolishness of buying these scanners? The whole TSA thing is nothing but the shutting of the barn door after the horse has gotten out — and what amazes me is how travelers line up like sheep thinking this is making them safer.

  • Keith Henrickson

    Well, I think if you’ve followed the news, the barn door that’s open was the complete failure of intelligence in the Christmas Day attempt. The guy’s father turned him in. Now, that takes a lot to turn your son in as a terrorist. Why… WHY didn’t the government listen? Or listen well enough? Full body scanners weren’t even necessary to say, “Hey, this guy is dangerous. Don’t let him on a plane.”

    It’s pretty easy to look up your representatives. Google will certainly find you some government sites. Then write a nice letter (paper works best), explaining that before we all start doing strip searches to get on planes, that we focus on the intelligence systems. If they took all that money and spent it on getting the airline computers to talk to the intelligence community properly…. the attackers might be stopped on Expedia’s website, rather than some last ditch body exam at the airport.

  • http://[email protected] barbara

    I have no objections to these machines. They seem preferable to being patted down. It seems that the most vocal objections come from a super liberal group willing to vist countries like Iran and North Korea and are upset if they encounter arrests. Also college students who hope to assist Haiti by visiting without supervision from a well known relief agency. Then have the nerve to demand aid from our State Department if they meet with disaster.

  • http://hasbrouck.org Edward Hasbrouck

    Barbara: Unfortunately, deployment of virtual strip-search machines as the primary passenger screening method will mean that more people, not fewer, will be patted down, and more intimately.

    If anything is visible under your clothes on the scanner image, you’ll be patted down to “resolve” what it is. Otherwise, the scanners would be completely pointless. And that will be true even for common items in particularly sensitive places on the body, such as menstrual pads, mastectomy prostheses, bras with gel pads, and so forth — none of which would set off a metal detector or lead to a pat-down in the absence of the body scanners.

  • Keith Henrickson

    Well, I am super-liberal. My parents watch FOX, I think they’re mad. :)

    But I have no desire to visit Iran or North Korea. I thought visiting Australia was a pretty out-there trip. If someone had to look at my naked body, or give a pat down, I’d rather have the pat down.

    Why? Because with the pat-down, I know exactly what they’re touching and how. If they want to turn it from a security issue to a sexual issue…. trust me, I’m going to figure it out. If some guy in the basement of an airport decides to turn my virtual strip search into something sexual… I’ve got no idea.

  • Robert

    Why don’t we leave arline safety up to those that have a vested interest in making flying safe. The Airlines!! Tax payers pay billions for an unreliable, ineffecient, unaccountable government institution, to subsidize what the airlines should be doing themselves namly making sure that each of their flights are safe to board.

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