Bob Poole wants to mend the TSA, Jim Harper wants to end it in a debate on transportation security.
Some important points from Poole, the defender of government’s role in aviation security in this debate:
- Against a comprehensive terrorist threat whose true dimensions are necessarily unknown, a free and open society has endless points of vulnerability. Attempting to “harden” all likely targets is a losing strategy—and a recipe for bankruptcy.
- The single most effective thing that’s been done in this regard is to retrofit much stronger cockpit doors, to deny terrorists access to pilots and controls should they manage to get on board. But the rest of aviation security policy is an inconsistent mix of overkill and underprotection. Mandating 100 percent inspection of checked bags for explosives, but not of carry-on bags, makes no sense. Neither does inspecting 100 percent of passengers for metal but not for explosives. Likewise, why inspect 100 percent of bags but not the cargo that flies alongside them?
Current security policy toward passengers and their bags operates as if every person and every bag were equally likely to pose a threat. The costs imposed—both wasted time from showing up an hour early and the hassles and indignities of screening—are very large. But the only alternative (short of doing nothing, which would make planes too attractive as targets) is to base airport security policy on known or expected risk, targeting inspection resources where they are most likely to make a difference.
- We also need to fundamentally rethink the function of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Although the TSA is charged with protecting all forms of transportation, it devotes the vast majority of its staff and budget to airlines, presumably because Congress overreacted to 9/11. Yet cargo containers entering our ports and crossing our borders are also potential threat vectors, and railroads carrying hazardous chemicals are also vulnerable targets. So TSA ought to do a serious analysis of where America could get the most bang for our bucks in transportation security, and recommend changes to Congress accordingly. That would likely mean much less emphasis on airlines and somewhat more emphasis on other modes.
The other major problem with the TSA is its built-in conflict of interest. As created by Congress, TSA is both the security policy maker/regulator and a major provider of security screening services.