30 December 2009

What Does DHS Think TSA's Job Is?

I've been puzzling over Janet Napolitano's comments in the wake of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's semi-successful attempt to ignite a bomb onboard a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas day.

At first I thought her comment that "the system worked" was just normal bureaucratic ass-covering, but after reading and re-reading her comments, and after thinking about the "additional security measures" most widely implemented after the incident, I'm not so sure.

The additional security measures just didn't make sense to me at first:

  1. Passengers limited to one carryon bag (Abdulmutallab had none).
  2. No personal effects in passenger laps during last hour (Abdulmutallab had nothing in his lap; the bomb was inside his clothing).
  3. No moving around the cabin in the last hour (OK, Abdulmutallab did this).
But then I asked myself "what are these rules trying to prevent?"

The answer is unfortunately obvious - the rules are trying to prevent someone who has succeeded in getting a bomb on the plane from detonating it over a populated area near an airport.

What tipped me off was the weird restriction of the new rules to the last hour of the flight - what DHS apparently really doesn't want is a plane exploding in an urban area on TV, because that would look too much like 9/11. If we're going to lose one, let's make sure it goes down over a farm - like United 93.

Just to be perfectly clear, it looks to me like these rules are DHS's (specifically TSA's) attempt to protect the people on the ground, not the people on the plane. The underlying assumption is that terrorists who try to smuggle a bomb onto an airplane will succeed, at least some of the time.

Given the failure of TSA screening to detect pretty much all hazardous materials, this assumption is depressingly realistic. It also makes Secretary Napolitano's comments to CNN's Candy Crowley much easier to understand. If you're assuming that you can't stop people from smuggling bombs onto airplanes, you're going to assume that you'll lose a plane from time to time, and the best you can do is minimize the damage and respond quickly. Here's what Secretary Napolitano said:

...the system worked. Everybody played an important role here … the passengers and crew of the flight took appropriate action within literally an hour to 90 minutes of the incident occurring all 128 flights in the air had been notified to take some special measures in light of what had occurred on the Northwest Airlines flight. Uh, we instituted new measures on the ground and at screening areas both here in the United States and in Europe … uh … where this flight originated, so … ah … th … the whole process of making sure that we respond properly, directly and effectively went very smoothly.
These are the words of someone who's planning on cleaning up a mess rather than preventing people from making the mess in the first place. When Crowley followed up, the Secretary more or less confirmed that preventing an airplane bombing is a lower priority than keeping the planes running on time:
...what I really think deserves attention is everybody responded quickly effectively … witihout, without, you know, panicking and shutting down the airline systems — air travel.
If you're a taxpayer (or even if you're just a citizen), you're entitled to an opinion about what TSA's job should be. Here's a handy little poster illustrating what this citizen and taxpayer thinks it should be:

If TSA can't do this, or doesn't want to do it, I say shut 'em down and spend the money on something more effective.

You can watch the interview with Secretary Napolitano here.