Why The TSA Is Really About Getting You Used To Giving Up Your Rights

February 4, 2013

Why The TSA Is Really About Getting You Used To Giving Up Your Rights
(While raking in mega-bucks for the connected and keeping the jobless rate a little less dismal.)

Christopher Elliott writes in a Nat Geo column about something I’ve written about before — that the way to find terrorists is through targeted intelligence by highly trained intelligence officers. In other words, putting resources and manpower toward people there’s reason to suspect are terrorists — and long before they hit any building or airport:

Critics say there’s no causal relationship between a TSA with a sprawling mandate and the absence of a terrorist attack. Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University, says screeners are conducting the law-enforcement equivalent of a clumsy police dragnet. “They’re throwing something at the wall to see if it sticks.” He and others are troubled that the random roadside checkpoints and the intermittent security screenings at subway and train stations could become permanent. Groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center are taking a lead in advocating limits to what they view as an expansive TSA. The center is suing the federal government on the decision to deploy body scanners and to ensure the right of the public to have its views heard.

The consequences of going too far in either direction could be serious. We have to carefully balance security against privacy; otherwise we risk becoming a show-me-your-papers-please nation with troubling echoes of other closed societies. “Governments good and bad have always cited national security, the prevention of terrorism, and the defense of freedom as their excuses for surveillance and control of people’s movements,” says Edward Hasbrouck, a privacy advocate who is one of the leading voices against TSA overreach. “But we can’t defend freedom by adopting measures that prevent us from exercising the rights we profess to believe in.”

Has the TSA prevented one or more terrorist attacks? That’s unanswerable. But I think the price has been high. And I fear that the cost could rise, just to make us feel safe when we travel. We need to order up just enough security as is necessary–and no more.

Previous attempts to define and limit the TSA have failed, despite a blistering 2012 congressional report that recommended downsizing and privatizing parts of the TSA, and several bills designed to contain the agency’s reach. TSA reform didn’t register as an election-year concern, and neither candidate took a meaningful stance on the issue. Obviously, no political party wants to be the first to reexamine the security apparatus created more than a decade ago, and risk the political repercussions if there’s another 9/11-style attack.

Fellow travelers, let’s call for one sensible step: Revise the TSA’s mission statement to limit its activity to air transportation. After all, we have local and state police, highway patrols, Customs and Border Protection, and, if necessary, the National Guard to protect roads, bridges, railways, and the occasional Super Bowl game. Adding a single word–”air”–to its mission would end its controversial VIPR program. One word would put the TSA’s enormous budget into perspective, allowing lawmakers to ask–and answer–the question: How much do we want to spend on aviation security? I’m willing to bet it would be significantly less than the $7.4 billion Americans currently pay for the TSA.

Related: Burgess Everett writes at Politico that Rand Paul is planning to refile legislation to scale back the TSA:

The Kentucky Republican said in an interview that he plans to refile legislation that would drastically scale back the Transportation Security Administration’s reach by privatizing security screening operations at airports and creating a series of passenger protections.

…One bill would have ended the TSA screening operation and required airports to select companies from the private sector to do screening — a growing practice already used at a handful of airports, though one dealt a blow after Sacramento’s airport recently reversed its steps toward privatization. The other bill would have allowed some people to opt out of pat-downs, required distribution of a list of fliers’ rights and vastly expanded an expedited screening program for frequent fliers, a movement also embraced by new House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mike McCaul (R-Texas).

Let’s explore this again: We’re really going to stop a terrorist plot by having unskilled workers grope their genitals minutes before they board a plane? It is extremely dangerous to give up our constitutional rights — and it is even more tragic that we are doing so in exchange for the security equivalent of a puppet show.

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