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.


Blogger Unknown said...

There's a limited sense in which Napolitano's "the system worked" assertion might be true. In the past, al Qaeda has launched parallel attacks, where they apply the same tactics simultaneously in different places, as on 9/11. Presumably DHS has systems in place that can react to attacks (or attempts) quickly, broadcasting warnings and putting responsive countermeasures in place across the whole system. These parts of the system might have worked well.

(Despite this, it's still a stretch, to say the least, to claim that the overall system worked.)

December 30, 2009 4:02 PM  
Blogger Mark Mac Auley said...


Your remarks are spot on. Unfortunately there will be few who comprehend the NATURE of what was said vs. what was said.

There was an excellent piece in the NYT today from Maureen Dowd who pointed out that the systems have no intelligence and that a no fly list system has no way of knowing his father called to tell authroities that his sone was off the reservation. We crack that nut and we're in a better position.

As far as the TSA is concerned they have been wrangling to get control of the data in the CLEAR application that was supposed to be destroyed by Lockheed, and if you have booked tickets recently they ask for an awful lot of data, similar to CLEAR enrollment - only your SSN will be attached to every ticket in every system. It still wont know that you have a bomb stuck somplace the sun don't shine...

December 30, 2009 6:33 PM  
Blogger Zach Tumin said...

I dunno, Bob. Seems too cynical by half. The idea that DHS would embed an assumption of failure in *policy* and articulate a minimize-the-damage plan that forced an explosion over farmland rather than cities seems way beyond their ken. I don't have an alternative explanation. I'm just not partial to this one. Maybe we could ask the Secretary...

December 30, 2009 8:03 PM  
Blogger Algosome said...

I can't recall where I heard it, but some of the early reports stated that Abdulmutallab had specific instructions to detonate his stuff when the plane was on final approach, over US airspace.

Remember that the flight path from Amsterdam to Detroit is a polar one, over Canada when it's not over the North Sea or the Arctic Ocean. Barring mutual defense treaties that probably were focused on threats from Soviet ICBMs rather than terrorists, the US Government unfortunately doesn't care much about what happens to our neighbors to the North.

December 30, 2009 8:59 PM  
Blogger don said...

Hmm. Your thesis is, "damage control is bad. We should plan only for success."

Really? Wow. I, uh, I disagree.

Your conclusion is getting close, though: "If TSA can't [be effective enough], I say spend the money on something more effective." Security experts call what goes on in airports " Security Theatre" -- it's intended primarily to make us feel safer, it doesn't do much to actually make us safer. I agree we should reduce the silly stuff as we board planes, and focus on things that actually reduce real risk.

...such as, I dunno, simple regulations that prevent sky bombs from falling in heavily populated areas. If you're right and these regulations will help move detonations away from cities, then I'm ok with the minor inconvenience of putting away my laptop an hour early. At least I'm not missing my flight for something that makes no difference.

January 01, 2010 3:14 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Dead-on Bob.

What about the one carry-on bag per person rule?

This seems pretty obvious to me: it cuts down on TSA screening work.

You can look at this two ways.

1) They just want less work due to their laziness.

2) Less work means more effective screening.

Given the TSA's true function (a Congressional make-work program for the unemployable) I go with (1) but do remain open to the possibility that perhaps someone at DHS believed (2).

In the immortal words of Rahm Emmanuel, "Don't let a crisis go to waste." If TSA can eventually succeed in limiting everyone to only one carry-on they will have substantially cut down on crowd control for their make-work "jobs."

January 01, 2010 6:28 PM  
Blogger Bob said...


I didn't say and don't believe that damage control is bad. Damage control is fine. Prevention is also fine.

What is not fine is pretending to be in the prevention business, while not actually doing anything effective to prevent attacks, on MY dime.

If TSA wants to do prevention, I'll consent to the use of some of my money for that purpose. If TSA wants to do damage control but not prevention, and admit that that's what they're doing, I'll consent to the use of a different amount of my money for that purpose.

What I won't consent to paying for under any circumstances is pretending to do prevention.

January 02, 2010 12:31 AM  
Blogger don said...

I'm relieved; the post had seemed a departure from your usual insight and horse sense. That clarification makes sense, and of course I agree.

January 02, 2010 1:06 PM  
Blogger don said...

Last time I'll comment on this one, I promise. I thought I'd draw your attention to this article by Bruce Schneier. It gibes well with your post and I thought it was worth reading.

The best response to terrorism is not what we do. It is a quiet, simple, powerful, four word phrase: I am not afraid.

January 04, 2010 7:19 PM  
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February 17, 2010 3:34 PM  

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