Let’s be clear from the start that, despite having been a security professional most of my professional life, I am not particularly fond of either DHS or TSA. In part, that’s because their origin was profoundly flawed. Having found that many of our problems associated with 9/11 were due to an ineffective bureaucracy, the government decided the best solution was another layer of bureaucracy. And then they named it Department of Homeland Security. Is there anyone over the age of 50 who doesn’t feel chills down their spine when the hear that term? Homeland? You know who else was concerned with the homeland, or as he would have put it, heimat? To give it such a name reveals both a lack of understanding of history, and a profoundly disturbing mindset.
Next, we come to their mindset. A good system, a good big system, almost invariably arises because a good little system was successful, and grew. The kinds of systems that are most prone to failure are those where pre-existing systems are bolted together — they are big, but their different parts never learned how to communicate with each other, so they are also clumsy. The clumsiness of this Frankenstein’s monster is exacerbated by the fact that the parts don’t want to communicate. This, in turn, is due to the profound difference between organizations that deal with what is called positive intelligence vs those whose primary role is counterintelligence and security. In positive intelligence, there is one cardinal sin, and this may surprise you — knowing something and not telling the people who need to know it. In counterintelligence and law enforcement, you get promoted for making more arrests than anyone else, and the way you do that is by having better intelligence than anyone else. A career in these fields builds in a no-share mindset. This is what Linstone would call a Personal issue, aggravated by the Organizational structure. Technology (the third leg off his multiple perspectives), as usual, isn’t really a player in this fail structure.
Now we look back at what I talked about last time, the two goals of the bureaucratic organization: control and failure avoidance. I freely admit up front that DHS/TSA have been given an impossible job. There is no working system that is 100% failure-free, nor will there ever be. As Bruce Schneier has often said, the most effective bureaucratic action to come out of 9/11 was the order to armor airline cockpit doors. At one swoop, DHS/TSA made it almost impossible for 9/11 to happen again. Terrorists might bring down an aircraft, but they will never be able to fly one into a public building. The second most effective thing, by the way, to come out of 9/11 was the realization of the passengers that onboard security was up to them. All attempts to bring down airliners by setting fire to terrorist feet or crotches have been foiled by alert and active passengers, not by any actions of DHS/TSA. The best their sky marshals have been able to do is to kill a mentally disturbed man who posed no great threat, and was already off the aircraft. Of course, the new rules about when you can stand and move about the compartment will have the primary effect of limiting passenger response to a threat.
In the face of this monumental, structural, impotence, DHS/TSA has reverted to (Schneier again) “security theater”. Security theater, like street theater, has little to do with reality. It is all about appearances. When the next airliner comes down (not if), DHS/TSA will be able to point to all their amateur theatrics and say “we did everything possible”. It’s not failure avoidance, it’s avoidance of the appearance of failure. Take the ban on fluids. Even DHS/TSA doesn’t believe in it. As others have pointed out, if you try to bring an AK-47 through security, they will arrest you. If you try to bring a half-full 6oz bottle labeled “baby cream” through, they will take it from you and — drop it in a can with all the other confiscations. On top of that, the ban isn’t on taking a large amount of fluids on an aircraft, it’s a ban against an individual taking a large amount of fluids through security. OK, so we get an accomplice who is part of the ground crew to stash it where you can pick it up prior to boarding. Or, we get ten people to go through security and each transfer their 3oz payload to the pocket bomber, or carpet bomber, or whatever is the next technique, again, after security screening but prior to boarding.
This isn’t control, this is the illusion of control, and they work to maintain this illusion, at all costs. For example, there was an elderly nun a few years back, who shares a name with someone on the “additional screening” list. Not the “no-fly” list, that compendium of names of people who are so dangerous they cannot be allowed to fly, but against whom we do not have enough evidence to arrest, but a different, much larger, list. She flys a lot, this nun, on church business, and at one point, during her hundredth or so patdown she said something like “I could see doing this if this was Northern Ireland…” The patter-down exercised their bureaucratic compassion and said “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, because if I did, I’d have to arrest you”. The rule is, you can’t diss the system. You have to pretend that it’s all very serious and in aid of something, or draconian measures will be taken.
It’s not just air safety, although that was the initial excuse. Consider the recent arrest and conviction of a Canadian SF writer for the federal felony crime of taking too long when ordered to lie down at a border crossing. Even more recently, a federal court in Seattle found that it is permissable for a police officer to taser a pregnant woman who refuses to accept a traffic ticket. Three times. What is happening is that those who desire more control are using the new attitudes of the whole of this country’s bureaucracy, including that of the courts, to further their own goals of control and suppression of freedom. The result is that those who are theoretically charged with protecting us are now a greater threat to our personal freedom and well-being than any terrorist.
NOTE: No sooner do I mention the ineffectiveness of the Sky Marshall program do we get this item from a Republican Congressman.