Trading Freedom for . . . Insecurity

A Department of Transportation study of “heightened” airport security conducted from November through February shows airport security like Swiss cheese. If anything, the increased security has made airports less secure, not more.

The report has been kept secret since it was completed in February, but a confidential summary of it was obtained by USA Today. On March 25, in a story entitled “Test Show no Improvements,” the paper reported that: “In the months after Sept. 11, airport screeners confiscated record numbers of nail clippers and scissors. But nearly half the time, they failed to stop the guns, knives or simulated explosives carried past checkpoints by undercover investigators with the Transportation Department’s inspector general.”

The story went on to note that “even as the Federal Aviation Administration evacuated terminals and pulled passengers from more than 600 planes because of security breaches, a confidential memo obtained by USA Today shows investigators noticed no discernable improvements by screeners . . . Indeed, security might even have gotten worse after the terrorist attacks. Failure rates in the memo are higher than those in FAA tests cited during congressional testimony last year.”

Despite (or because of) new measures ordered by the federal government, and greater federal “oversight” than ever before, investigators found that they were able to get knives through airport security more than 70% of the time, explosives got through 60% of the time, and guns 30%. The FAA has done security checks such as this periodically for two decades and these results appear to be worse than any previously conducted.

The paper was baffled that despite all sorts of new FAA regulations, thousands of additional security personnel hired and tens of millions of dollars spent on added security, that airline safety was at an all time low. To those of us who analyze the situation rationally, however, it comes as no surprise.

Last October I had written an article entitled “Airport Security: Government is Not the Answer, It's the Problem” (which appeared on and later a longer version was in Media Bypass magazine). Back then I reported on my experience with flying and how it was obvious that there was so much emphasis on finding anything remotely pointy (like nail clippers), and checking ID cards at every opportunity, that less real attention was being paid to looking for truly dangerous weapons.

I also pointed out that it is impossible to keep all weapons off planes (government cannot even keep knives out of high security prisons) and so basically all of the new government ordered “security measures” were simply PR designed to make the public feel as though improvements had been made.

Most people had been convinced that the security measures ordered by the FAA after September, while onerous and expensive, that “It is the price we pay for safety”. The FAA investigation, however proves that was not the case. Travelers are paying a high price and getting nothing for it.

Even though the FAA discovered that the increased security was not working a month ago, no attempt was made to reduce or repeal some of the silly and pointless measures, and it is hardly surprising that the government tried to keep the report secret. This just shows that the government is more concerned about public perception than about concrete results.

As with any failed government program, the response is not to admit that the government took a wrong turn and go back. No, the response is to redouble the efforts. Hence, travelers in the future are going to be subjected to a new government bureaucracy called the Transportation Safety Administration which has just been created with a multi-billion dollar budget. Once again we are being told that this is “the price we have to pay.”

The USA Today story has made a major splash, it has been covered by all the major networks and newspapers, but will it make a difference. Will people ever learn that when you agree trade freedom for security you usually end up with neither?

March 27, 2002