OverTheGeicoE writes: TSA recently announced that it would remove all of Rapiscan's X-ray body scanners from airports by June. As part of this effort, it is trying to move a millimeter-wave body scanner from the Helena, Montana airport to replace an X-ray unit at a busier airport. Strangely enough, they have encountered resistance from the Helena's Airport Manager, Ron Mercer. Last Thursday, workers came to remove the machine, but were prevented from doing so by airport officials. Why? Perhaps Mercer agrees with Cindi Martin, airport director at Montana's Glacier Park International Airport airport, who called the scheduled removal of her airport's scanner 'a great disservice to the flying public' in part because it 'removed the need for the enhanced pat-down.'
OverTheGeicoE writes: TSA gets discussed on Slashdot from time to time, usually negatively. Have you ever wondered about the TSA screeners' perspective? Taking Sense Away is a blog, allegedly written by a former TSA screener, offering insider perspectives on TSA topics. For example, there's the Insider's TSA Dictionary, whose entries are frequently about the code screeners use to discuss attractive female passengers (like 'Code Red,' 'Fanny Pack,' and 'Hotel Bravo'). Another posting explains what goes on in private screening rooms, which the author claims is nothing compared to screener conduct in backscatter image operator rooms. Apparently what happens in the IO room stays in the IO room. Today's posting covers how TSA employees feel about working for 'a despised agency'. For many the answer is that they hate working for 'the laughing stock of America’s security apparatus,' try to hide that they work for TSA, and want to transfer almost anywhere else ASAP.
OverTheGeicoE writes: TSA has had a preferred traveler program, PreCheck, for a while now. Frequent fliers and other individuals with prior approval from DHS can avoid some minor annoyances of airport security, like removing shoes and light jackets, but not all of the time. TSA likes to be random and unpredictable, so PreCheck participants don't always get the full benefits of PreCheck. Apparently the decision about PreCheck is made when the boarding pass is printed, and a traveler's PreCheck authorization is encoded, unencrypted, on the boarding pass barcode. In theory, one could use a barcode-reading Web site (like this one, perhaps) to translate a barcode into text to determine your screening level before a flight. One might even be able to modify the boarding pass using PhotoShop or the GIMP to, for example, get the screening level of your choice. I haven't been able to verify this information, but I bet Slashdot can. Is TSA's PreCheck system really that easy to game? If you have an old boarding pass lying around, can you read the barcode and verify that the information in TFA is correct?
OverTheGeicoE writes: If you're concerned about possible health effects from TSA's X-ray body scanners, you might be pleased to learn that TSA is making changes. TSA is removing X-ray body scanners from major airports including Los Angeles International, Boston's Logan, Chicago's O'Hare, and New York City's JFK. Then again, these changes might not please you at all, because they are not mothballing the offending devices. No, they are instead moving them to smaller airports like the one in Mesa, AZ. Is this progress, or is TSA just moving potentially dangerous scanners from 'Blue' areas to 'Red' ones right before a presidential election?
OverTheGeicoE writes: The producers of the Discovery Channel's Curiosity documentary series are about to start their new season in an interesting way: they decided to purchase and deliberately crash a Boeing 727. Why? To find out more about airline passenger crash survival. The plane is, of course, unmanned at the time of the crash into the Mexican desert, and it appears to have little to no fuel on board, judging by the lack of a fireball (video). In other airliner crashes, including both tests and genuine disasters, fireballs (video)were (video)common (video of 9/11). Will this documentary give people a false sense of security about their chances of surviving an airline crash? Does the low-speed, low-fuel crash test trivialize the largest danger, fuel fires, both for passengers and bystanders on the ground?
OverTheGeicoE writes: The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) recently filed a petition to force the Department of Homeland Security to start its public comment period on body scanners within 60 days or stop using them entirely. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has issued its ruling (PDF), and has refused EPIC's petition. DHS told the court earlier that it expected to have a formal rule proposal on body scanners by the end of February, so the court denied EPIC's motion on the expectation that public comment period would start by late March. TFA and this submission have a pessimistic headline on this ruling, but other sources seem to think the glass is half-full, and that EPIC in effect got what it wanted. Is this a victory or a defeat? Will the rulemaking process start on time, or will a TSA dog eat the proposed rule in late March and force further delay?
OverTheGeicoE writes: Why is it that airport security never seems to change in the United States? Perhaps it's because most Americans think TSA is doing a 'good job,' according to a surprise Gallup poll, allegedly commissioned by no one but the kind editors at Gallup. The poll found that 54% of Americans believe TSA is doing a good or excellent job, and that 57% have a good or excellent opinion of the agency. So why all the criticism? According to TFA, criticism of the TSA comes primarily from 'Internet sites, where reporting standards are generally not at the same level as newspapers, where reporters are taught to consider what is told to them with skepticism and to seek responses to charges.' Furthermore, 'the TSA is put into a difficult situation when such charges are posted with little or no fact checking by reporters.' Other sources, of course, have differentinterpretations of Gallup's results, including questions about whether the poll was biased. If Americans secretly do love TSA, that could explain why the recent whitehouse.gov petition failed to gather enough signatures for a 'response.' In fact, you'll find so little information about the petition remains on whitehouse.gov that you'll wonder if my link is correct. And these are not the droids you're looking for. Move along.
OverTheGeicoE writes: The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a motion in court yesterday regarding the court's ignored year-old ruling on EPIC vs. DHS. EPIC is asking the court to require DHS to start taking public comment within 60 days or, as an alternative, forbid DHS from using body scanners in primary airport screening altogether. If the court orders the latter, that would give EPIC what it originally sought in its lawsuit. Meanwhile, for what it's worth, the related petition on whitehouse.gov has a little more than half the signatures it needs to get an official 'response.' The signing period ends on August 9.
OverTheGeicoE writes: About a year ago, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on EPIC v. DHS, a lawsuit that sought to end TSA's use of body scanners. The Court found that DHS violated federal law by not seeking public comment before using body scanners as a primary search method. They ordered TSA to take public comment on its body scanning policy but did not require TSA to suspend its use of the scanners during the comment period. Several months later nothing had been done yet. One year later TSA has still done nothing, and even EPIC, the original plaintiff, seems to have given up. Others have apparently picked up the torch, however. Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, has posted a piece on Ars Technica about TSA's violation of the court order. He also started a petition on Whitehouse.gov asking TSA to comply with the order. An earlier petition ended with a non-response from TSA Administrator John Pistole. Will the latest petition fare any better, even in an election year?
OverTheGeicoE writes: Former TSA Administrator Kip Hawley has been inthenews in recent months, talking about how the Transportation Security Administration is broken and how it can be fixed. Some of his TSA criticisms in the popular press seem to make sense. This seemed strange to me. Just last March he was defending TSA in a debate with Bruce Schneier in The Economist. Then, the very next month, he's criticizing his former agency as if he was on the other side of that debate to begin with. Why? I felt like I was missing something, so I decided to read his book to find out more about his position. The title of the book is Permanent Emergency: Inside the TSA and the Fight for the Future of American Security, and it is co-written by Nathan Means.
The book is partly a memoir of Hawley's involvement with TSA, which predates his appointment as its administrator. Hawley helped architect the TSA shortly after it was first authorized. He left government service once that was finished, but came back again in 2005, appointed by President George W. Bush to become TSA's third administrator in four years. He stuck with the job until the exact moment Barack Obama was sworn in as President in January of 2009. If you're looking for insight into TSA's most controversial policies, the extensive use of body scanning and pat down searches, you won't find that in this book. Those policies were put in place by Hawley's successor almost two years later. The phrase 'body scan' is used exactly once.
The book breaks from the memoir style at times and changes to that of an action-suspense thriller. It is interwoven with segments of prose similar to a Tom Clancy novel. In these segments we learn about the life, and possibly the ultimate death, of an Al Qaeda operative who goes by multiple names throughout the course of the book. Raised in Austria, we follow the terrorist through training with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and his connection with various airline-related terrorist plots against the United States. Under Administrator Hawley, TSA uses all its intelligence resources to track his moves and act to thwart the terrorist's nefarious schemes.
The Clancyesque sections are a severe weakness of the book, bordering on laughable at times. For example, there's a description of a Casio watch that reminded me of a Dave Barry parody of Tom Clancy. The action-suspense writing style also tends to over-dramatize and exaggerate TSA's actual accomplishments. The intelligence sources TSA uses all belong to conventional intelligence agencies, both US and foreign. The event leading to the most dramatic moments of the book, the disruption of a liquid bomb plot, was the work of British intelligence and law enforcement in the UK. The authors describe in great, suspenseful detail that while the British are rounding up actual Al Qaeda cell members, TSA in the US is waging war against an entire phase of matter, one that covers about 70% of Earth's surface. Thanks to their determined efforts, TSA was able to ban liquids from carry on luggage literally overnight. However, in this and all other terrorist plots covered in this book, the authors never offer any evidence that TSA's use of its borrowed intelligence ever allowed TSA to disrupt any specific, credible, and imminent threat. So, if you like the idea of a Tom Clancy book where the Jack Ryan character agonizes over intel a lot but never actually does anything of provable value with it, this may be the book for you.
Although the writing style was problematic at times, it didn't totally undermine the value of the book. It helped me understand why mainstream media is so accepting of TSA. During Hawley's tenure, TSA made strong, successful efforts to woo the press, including interviews with CBS' 60 Minutes and appearances on Oprah. The good relationship established during Hawley's administration apparently continues to this day, despite the dramatic changes in operations imposed by his successor. The book also gives an amusing mini-bio of TSA's 'Blogger Bob' Burns, who has been called 'the Tokyo Rose of the modern age' for his defenses of TSA under John Pistole.
I've often wondered why TSA seems so unresponsive to the American public, and this book offered me a plausible explanation. Hawley seems to view TSA almost exclusively as a weapon in the US war against Al Qaeda. When TSA implements policies that seem crazy or ineffective to the rest of us, it doesn't use outside opinions to judge the effectiveness of its policies. Instead it uses information gathered from the intelligence community unavailable to outsiders. A policy change is considered effective if Al Qaeda reacts in a desirable way. For example, if a TSA operation deploys VIPR teams at public transportation centers and suspected Al Qaeda operatives leave the US afterwards, the operation is considered successful.
This book also helped me better understand Hawley's recent press comments. It sounds as if Hawley is saying that TSA's most controversial policies can be terminated if intelligence shows Al Qaeda to be on the decline. Now that he is outside TSA, Hawley seems to see what the American public does, and sees a reason to change security. If intelligence shows an increase of Al Qaeda activity, security can be raised again as needed.
This understanding of how TSA works is also confusing. What we're actually seeing from TSA is an expansion of their activities in recent years, with no meaningful or significant easing of its invasive passenger screening being proposed. Could that mean Al Qaeda is actually on the rise in some way not obvious to the general public? If not, Hawley's successor is a real bungler, and I would expect Hawley to call him that when given a chance. Instead, Hawley specifically refuses to second guess his successor at the end of his book, leaving me puzzled about how the US war against Al Qaeda is actually going.
Permanent Emergency is an interesting book. It certainly has flaws. The writing style is inconsistent and often unsatisfying. It is not entirely factually correct in many of its stories; TSA classifies a lot of information, and the authors admit to changing or concealing details for that and other reasons. The book does not attempt to tackle the most controversial aspects of today's TSA policies. Still, the book gives insight into how TSA was formed, what problems it was designed to address, and how it operates. TSA is so new, there are few sources of this type to examine right now, so any firsthand account is useful. I recommend this book to anyone concerned by TSA's operations, as it helps us understand how TSA became what it is now.
OverTheGeicoE writes: Over a month after Sen. Rand Paul announced his intention to pull the plug on TSA, he has finally released his legislation that he tweets will 'abolish the #TSA & establish a passengers "Bill of Rights."' Although the tweet sounds radical, the press release describing his proposed legislation is much less so. 'Abolition' really means privatization; one of Paul's proposals would simply force all screenings to be conducted by private screeners. The proposed changes in the 'passenger Bill of Rights' appear to involve slight modifications to existing screening methods at best. Many of his 'rights' are already guaranteed under current law, like the right to opt-out of body scanning. Others can only vaguely be described as rights, like 'expansion of canine screening.' Here's to the new boss...