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The TSA can’t find hidden explosives because the security state is failing you

It's been over a decade since September 11. Why can't the TSA do its job?


Matthew Rozsa

Internet Culture

Posted on Jun 2, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 4:51 pm CDT

recent internal investigation revealed that the Transportation Security Administration failed 95 percent of its security checkpoint tests. When the Department of Homeland Security made 70 attempts to smuggle explosives and weapons past the citadels of American airport security, they succeeded 67 times.

This is part of a larger pattern of post-9/11 incompetence, one in which we grant increasing, often invasive power to government agencies in the name of national security, only to find out that they aren’t coming even remotely close to doing their job well.

It’s stupid, it’s embarrassing, and it needs to stop.

We can start with the TSA. Because they are defined not only as a law enforcement institution, but also as a regulatory agency, the TSA essentially gets to make up their own rules. As a result, they are constantly mired in scandal: Instead of destroying the images of our naked bodies taken by their scanners, TSA agents were often found to have kept them (it’s best not to imagine why).

The TSA has also been caught cheating on supposedly confidential security tests, with supervisors alerting their workers in advance to avoid getting bad marks. And as recently as last April, two TSA workers were fired for singling out “hot men” to be groped at their checkpoints.

The TSA essentially gets to make up their own rules. As a result, they are constantly mired in scandal.

How does this pattern of corruption get larded with the grease of incompetence—you know, the kind that leads to the aforementioned 95 percent failure rate?

It’s simple: The methods used by the TSA to protect us don’t make any damn sense. In Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, which is widely considered to be the safest in the world, potential terrorist threats are thwarted because security agents are trained to focus not on searching through luggage, but on studying the subtle nuances in body language, facial expression, and eye contact that indicate a passenger has something to hide.

“Raphael Ron, a former director of security at Ben Gurion for 5 years, calls the passenger-oriented security system more focused on the ‘human factor,’” explains Daniel Wagner and James Bell in International Policy Digest, “based on the assumption that terrorist attacks are carried out by people who can be found and have been stopped through the use of this simple but effective security methodology.”

As a result, Israel doesn’t use sophisticated X-ray machines (instead relying on old-fashioned metal detectors) and spares its patrons any invasive searches of their personal property. It may sound simple, but it works: By understanding the nonverbal cues given off by men and women with nefarious intent, the largest airport in a nation notoriously targeted for attacks is safer than the one which assumes that simply throwing money at the problem will make it go away.

Of course, the TSA’s corruption and incompetence is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to America’s post-9/11 epic fails.

Even more shameful is our use of “enhanced interrogation”—the Bush Administration’s favorite euphemism for torture—which not only violates the Geneva Conventions, but has been proved not to work. According to a Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program, inmates who were tortured either failed to provide any kind of intelligence or simply fabricated information that was, inevitably, useless.

The TSA’s corruption and incompetence is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to America’s post-9/11 epic fails.

“The most effective method for acquiring intelligence from detainees, including from detainees the CIA considered to be the most ‘high-value,’” the report found, “was to confront the detainees with information already acquired by the intelligence community,” as well as by offering inmates personal incentives to rat out their fellow terrorists.

Torture, on the other hand, not only fails because it pressures its victims into saying anything that can make their suffering stop; as neurobiologist Shane O’Mara explained in a paper for Trends in Cognitive Science, “the use of such techniques appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect.”

O’Mara continues, “Solid scientific evidence on how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions (such as planning or forming intentions) suggests these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.”

Not surprisingly, there is no evidence that the CIA’s torture tactics ever yielded information which prevented a terrorist attack.

Finally, we can look at the National Security Agency’s infamous phone record collection program. Although former acting CIA director Michael Morell famously argued in an op-ed for the Washington Post that the program “has the potential to prevent the next 9/11” and “needs to be successful only once to be invaluable,” it has failed to meet even the absurdly low standard that it set for itself.

Despite clearly violating Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights, a study analyzing 225 terrorism cases in the United States after the September 11 attacks determined that the bulk data collection “has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism.” Instead, as a study by the New America Foundation (a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank) reported to the Washington Post, the majority of thwarted terrorist attacks were stopped by “traditional law enforcement and investigative methods [which] provided the tip or evidence to initiate the case.”

Not surprisingly, there is no evidence that the CIA’s torture tactics ever yielded information which prevented a terrorist attack.

If there is a common theme linking the failures of the TSA’s security measures, the CIA’s use of torture, and the NSA’s wiretapping program, it is that each policy ignores the existing body of knowledge on what would keep Americans safe and instead relies on our most reactionary impulses. There is an undeniable appeal to the idea that we can stop the bad guys with state-of-the-art scanners that can spot any weapon no matter how well hidden, that we can defeat terrorists by applying an old-fashioned “beat the truth out of them” technique, or that we can thwart future attacks through the sheer technological might of America’s intelligence apparatus.

The problem with this mentality, aside from its obvious moral implications, is that it isn’t reinforced by the facts. Our warrantless wiretapping of ordinary American citizens hasn’t made us any safer, our torturing of Muslim detainees hasn’t yielded valuable information about the whereabouts of past terrorist actors or the plots of future ones, and as the TSA’s recent 95 percent fail rate makes clear, all the sophisticated technology in the world won’t protect our airports if the personnel operating that machinery aren’t trained in deciphering human nature.

America has already made it clear to the world that our security state has lots of brawn. If we want to actually make our country safer, we need to start adding some brains as well.

Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University, as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published on Salon, the Good Men Project, Mic, MSNBC, and various college newspapers and blogs. Matt actively encourages people to reach out to him at

Photo via NickHarris1/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

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*First Published: Jun 2, 2015, 4:52 pm CDT