The TSA agrees to disagree

It has been a while since I’ve ranted about the TSA, but I’m sitting here on Independence Day and reading some of the more recent posts by the TSA on their blog (it is pretty entertaining reading when it isn’t busy being really depressing) and some of their comments are too rich for me to pass on. Most notably, in my opinion, is that they have apparently decided that the best option they have is to agree to disagree with the public who continues to question their motives and efforts. I suppose that is way easier than actually answering the questions.

I noted last month that the TSA was changing their “no ID” policy in an effort to combat those of use who are “gaming the system” by refusing to produce papers for domestic travel. Basically now you cannot simply state that you choose to not produce ID. If you’ve lost it you’re OK, but if you are actively protesting the policy by refusing then you will be refused access to the secure part of the terminal. Not surprisingly there are a number of folks who are upset with this policy, many of whom have taken out their frustration in the comments of the various blog posts by the TSA. This week the TSA has decided to answer some of the questions. Sortof. They don’t always actually answer the questions and some of the answers are ridiculous, but they tried in their own strange way. One of the posts actually purports to be from the Directory of the agency himself.

Some of the more interesting Q&A bits from my perspective:

If they have no weapons, why does it matter WHO they are?

Ah, this is the key argument. We honestly believe that identity is as important as going through the metal detector. Our partners in the law enforcement and intelligence communities work tirelessly and in some cases under great physical danger to identify individuals that pose a threat to aviation. The simple truth is that it would be negligent to not use this information to our advantage.

Apparently it is possible as a human to be inherently dangerous, even when one does not possess any weapons or other means to cause trouble on an airplane. I do not understand this at all. I suppose that an airport employee could use their access to smuggle weapons in and then transfer them to the evil person who had none when passing through the check point. But wouldn’t it make more sense then to actually check the employee since that’s where the weapon is making it into the secure area???

Q: If requiring ID is truly instrumental in keeping the flying public safe, why did it take the TSA until June of 2008 to institute that policy?

A: Building blocks.

TSA put up a national security baseline in 2002. This involved creating the organization, staffing, buying and installing equipment — and the very familiar magnetometer/x-ray checkpoint. No-Fly and Selectee lists were established and given to airlines for them to match versus their ticketed passengers. Airlines continued the pre-9/11 practice of hiring contractors locally to check ID’s. That created a basic physical screening process at the checkpoint (TSA operated) and a basic person screening process through the airlines.

In 2006 and 2007 TSA strengthened the person screening process by adding a new layer (behavior) and improving the watchlist matching. Along with the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC), TSA scrubbed the No-Fly and selectee lists and essentially cut them in half. (CIA and FBI are the major players nominating people to the Watchlists, TSC maintains a consolidated, accurate, government-wide watchlist, and TSA operationally makes sure No-Flys don’t fly.) The system is vulnerable to people evading watchlists if they use a fake identity with the airline and then show a fake ID at the checkpoint. This vulnerability was called out by many on-line posters (and noticed by us) and we took a major step last year to upgrade the ID checks by integrating the checking of ID’s with the rest of TSA’s security. That is why you now have TSA officers, with lights and loupes examining ID’s throughout the system.

The ID requirements we’re talking about here, are the next building blocks to be added. First, to require identity verification and better define the hierarchy of good ID’s — hence the ‘gold standard.’

Putting aside the time issue, which doesn’t bother me really, Kip Hawley, the director of the TSA, has basically admitted that his organization is moving with great determination towards a position where any air travel activity will have to be vetted by a government official. If the CIA or FBI or anyone else decides to put your name on a list you can be denied access to domestic travel. This is horrendous. Call is a red herring if you want, but the guy admits that he’s trying to move the country in that direction.

Q: If TSA believes that 1) checking ID increases safety to the flying public and 2) the no-fly list is there to catch terrorists, then why are the TSOs that check IDs at the airport not comparing names to those on the no-fly list?

A: Because those checks are done before the boarding pass is issued. It is done in the background by a combination of the airlines and TSA.

I can easily purchase a ticket as John Doe, print a John Doe and a Jim Smith boarding pass, clear security with my Jim Smith pass and ID and board the plane as John Doe. It is so trivial as to be laughable that they feel the security is at all improved based on the current state of affairs. Ironically they took all the comments about how ineffective ID checking is based on the current flexibility in the production of a boarding pass and have added additional ineffective screening steps. Nothing has changed that prevents someone from producing multiple boarding passes using various names and IDs, all from a single purchase. Nothing has changed that actually increases the ability of the TSA to detect that someone might be passing through a checkpoint with a falsified boarding pass. And nothing has changed that in any way has improved the security of airports and airplanes.

At various points in the posts they also make outright false claims, such as, “Thusfar, every state in the union is working with DHS on REAL ID,” when in reality at least 18 states have passed legislation condemning the REAL ID system. The governor of Montana was quoted as telling the Department of Homeland Security to “go to hell” over this issue. Yet Montana and many others are still listed as “working with the DHS.

It is sad that the organization that could be focusing on securing the nation’s air space is instead focusing on catching people with fake IDs and fake social security cards. The claim that “[A]ltered documents are a staple of criminal and terrorist activity” is quaint. I’m not sure that anyone can actually document statistically whether terrorists are more likely to have a false identity than not, though I’d think not.

That’s all for my rant today. Though it does have me thinking about revolution, particularly today. It’d be nice to see our constitution actually respected rather than shat on by the government. Not likely, but a guy can dream.

Edit to add (2008.07.04 3:36p EDT): A quick update on this issue. The TSA is apparently editing the posts to make them read a bit better and not be quite so arrogant and annoying. The cached version from Google is still available, at least for now. Overall the cocntent seems to be more or less the same, including the part where they “know that terrorists use fake ID’s to evade security scrutiny.” That’s a claim that I’ve yet to ever seen documented at all reasonably.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.