Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bluto's Big Warm and Fuzzy Feel-Good TSA Post

Of course, the title is a lie because there's nothing warm and fuzzy or feel-good in airport security since 9/11. What there is, is a huge amount of misinformation, disinformation, stupidity, reckless opining, and deliberate lies coming from people who have a moral responsibility to do better.

The procedures used should be and are, open for debate. However, it's irresponsible for commentators to attack uniformed personnel who are performing their duties in accordance with established, required practice. Not only irresponsible, but a form of moral cowardice because the screeners are easier targets than the TSA bureaucrats who actually make the decisions that the screeners are required to follow. Is anyone really stupid enough to think that the uniformed screeners have the authority to mandate Israeli-style screening techniques?

Let's examine the state of US airport security, its recent history, and the formation of the TSA. Maybe that will help disspell some of the rhetoric and bs that's being thrown around.

The Transportation Security Administration was formed in a tearing hurry in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. It was the largest from-the-ground-up governmental organization since World War II. It also set off a bureaucratic turf war between the TSA, FAA, other law enforcement organizations, airlines and local airport authorities that continues to this day. The beginning was really sloppy, which is likely a characteristic of the genesis of any massive bureaucracy.

The TSA was originally under the Department of Transportation, later becoming part of the new Department of Homeland Security.

Tens of thousands of screeners, leads, and supervisors were hired, most of whom had no experience in airport security. Thousands of management staff: Federal Security Directors (FSDs), Assistant FSDs, Screening Managers, and administrative staffers were appointed, and it appears many got their appointments more through the basis of political connections than because of any relevant background.

New uniformed personnel were selected by a combination of online screening, computer-based x-ray aptitude exams, physical agility and search aptitude testing, and personal interviews. The testing was conducted by private contractors, as were the background checks once screeners were hired.

A Mobile Screening Force (MSF) was trained by the FAA out of Oklahoma City. The MSF was tasked with supervising the sixty hours of on-the-job-training (OJT) that each new uniformed TSA employee required in order to be certified in each checkpoint task. The new hires had successfully completed a week of classroom training prior to starting OJT.

Each new screener, lead, and supervisor needed to complete a specified number of hours in each checkpoint duty: x-ray operation, bag search, walk-through metal detector, hand wanding, patdown search, explosive trace detection, and exit security. X-ray operation required a further computer-based test for certification. This meant that no member of the command staff was qualified to perform any of the checkpoint tasks that they oversaw, and this created a hard division between uniformed TSA and management. In the beginning, no experienced, uniformed TSA members had been promoted to management, and uniformed service remains a tough road to that status.

Members of the MSF flew into each airport to be federalized and ran the checkpoints while training the new screeners. The MSF was supported by Strategic Airport Security Rollout (SASR) who preceded them to the airports, setting up airline tickets, accommodations, local transportation to and from the airports, scheduling, etc. MSF members were allowed leave for family emergencies, but no other reason. Like the TSA as a whole, the MSF was run para-military style; MSF orders, copies of which had to be submitted with expense account vouchers read that the MSF was on a "special mission." The MSF used the TSA Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) text as their bible. Revisions to the SOP were ongoing and frequent, and copies of the text rare.

It should be noted that deviations from the SOP are not authorized and are grounds for separation from service, i.e., screeners get fired if they don't do as they're directed. Uniformed personnel are required to stay current with current SOP revisions and time and computer terminals are provided for them to do this.

In any case, the most basic MSF commandment was, "resolve every alarm." An "alarm" means anything from someone making the metal detector beep to a suspicious x-ray image or an alarm from explosive trace detection (ETD) equipment.

Let's examine what resolving the alarm means from my own personal experience in how to and how not to resolve an alarm.

How to: I set off every metal detector through which I pass because of my teflon and stainless steel knee replacement. I am then given the opportunity to recheck my clothing for metal and go through the metal detector again. Of course, this does no good, so I'm pulled aside for secondary screening. The screener's wand beeps when it passes near my knee, but he nevertheless wands my entire body. He pats down my knee to make sure nothing is concealed under my clothing. There have been no other beeps from the hand wand. The alarm is resolved.

How not to: entering a security checkpoint at the Old Courthouse in Boston (prior to knee surgery) I set off the metal detector. I told the cop that I thought my boots probably had steel shanks and I should have removed them. The cop agreed, had me sit down, and waved the wand over my boots. They beeped. Then he sent me on my way, having failed to check any other part of my body. I could easily have concealed a weapon under my winter coat. He had not resolved the alarm. He had found one possible explanation for the alarm, but failed to eliminate any other possibilities.

Patdown and wanding techniques were inherited from the FBI, via the FAA. The original SOP patdown procedure included a "groin check," that is, patting the front of the groin area with the back of the hand. It also included a waistband check. The procedure was later modified, barring screeners from coming into contact with the middle of the groin area, though they were still required to search to the top of the thigh. The current "alternate patdown" appears to be a throwback to that original procedure.

In any case, same-sex screening has been the rule since the formation of the TSA. The odds are overwhelming that the screener searching you has zero interest in your "junk," other than as a potential hiding place for prohibited items. And the odds are exactly zero that the screener has the discretion to either just let you proceed without checking or modify the established procedure.

Up 'til now, flight crews have been required to go through the same screening as passengers, while airport employees like baggage handlers, tarmac crews, and janitors have not. I'm not sure why. Perhaps some upper level TSA bureaucrat saw "Catch Me If You Can," or maybe it's because local airports issue the IDs and card keys and flight crews are transients.

I've seen some pilots lose their cool and throw things at x-ray machines (that particular pilot was disciplined by his airline), or stuff their carry-ons with coins so that the x-ray operator is forced to require a search of the bag, allowing the pilot to pitch a little fit. Not the sort of person I'd like flying any plane I was on.

Again, the screener has no discretion. Even though the pilot carry-ons are distinctive and easily recognized on the x-ray, the SOP demands that any opaque area (the x-ray is blocked by the coins) must be subjected to a hand search.

Real threats are not the only concern facing the screeners. They log on each time they operate the x-ray equipment, which periodically generates virtual threat items. Missed virtual threats go on the screener's record and can result in remedial training or termination. The local command staff may, from time to time, try to pass ersatz bombs or other threat items. And there's always the possibility of an FAA Red Team trying to pass through with concealed threat items. One of their techniques is to have one member of the team deliberately get caught with a threat item and make a fuss, creating a diversion for a second member to sneak something more potentially deadly through the checkpoint.

That's why security will slow down or even freeze the checkpoint when a passenger is flying into a snit. The screeners know that the snit may be cover for something else. Of course, this means that the passenger's snit has a negative impact on all the other passengers, but the type of infantile personality who acts out like this doesn't care about other people.