Five Armed Terrorists Have An Eighty Percent Chance Of Breaching TSA Security

And I mean all five of them, not just one of them. There have been a spate of articles about how long it takes to get through TSA airport security. But what’s amazing–in a bad way–is how bad it is at finding potential terrorists (boldface mine):

The TSA is hard to evaluate largely because it’s attempting to solve a non-problem. Despite some very notable cases, airplane hijackings and bombings are quite rare. There aren’t that many attempts, and there are even fewer successes. That makes it hard to judge if the TSA is working properly — if no one tries to do a liquid-based attack, then we don’t know if the 3-ounce liquid rule prevents such attacks.

So Homeland Security officials looking to evaluate the agency had a clever idea: They pretended to be terrorists, and tried to smuggle guns and bombs onto planes 70 different times. And 67 of those times, the Red Team succeeded. Their weapons and bombs were not confiscated, despite the TSA’s lengthy screening process. That’s a success rate of more than 95 percent.

It’s easy to make too much of high failure rates like that. As security expert Bruce Schneier likes to note, such screenings don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be good enough to make terrorists change their plans: “No terrorist is going to base his plot on getting a gun through airport security if there’s a decent chance of getting caught, because the consequences of getting caught are too great.”

But even Schneier says 95 percent was embarrassingly high, and probably not “good enough” for those purposes. If you’re a prospective terrorist looking at that stat, you might think smuggling a gun onto a plane is worth a shot.

According to the source story, these were pretty obvious breaches–one example was having an explosive device taped to his back.

What this incredible high failure rate means is that if five members of the Dreaded Al-Gebra Front attempt to smuggle weapons or other deadly things on to a plane, all five of them will have an eighty percent chance of getting on the plane. All of them.

And what is the probability that, let’s say, nineteen terrorists–just to randomly pick a number–would all be missed? Forty three percent. All nineteen.

This is a fucking joke. Security theater doesn’t even begin to describe it. Dylan Matthews is right:

The solution is clear: Airports should kick out the TSA, hire (well-paid and unionized) private screeners, and simply ask people to go through normal metal detectors with their shoes on, their laptops in their bags, and all the liquids they desire. The increased risk would be negligible — and if it gets people to stop driving and start flying, it could save lives.

And while we’re at it, stop calling the continental U.S. the ‘homeland.’

Aside: I’m assuming that each miss is an independent event. One hopes that every time someone tries to smuggle a gun or knife through a single checkpoint, there is some learning going on (i.e., the odds of finding the second gun that day are higher than the first).

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2 Responses to Five Armed Terrorists Have An Eighty Percent Chance Of Breaching TSA Security

  1. jrkrideau says:

    such screenings don’t have to be perfect; they just have to be good enough to make terrorists change their plans

    Ah right. A 95% success rate is way too low for a suicide bomber? In the context Schneier’s comment is about as fatuous as it gets.

    It looks like the TSA is great theatre and lousy security. A couple of sharp–eyed little old ladies sitting on lawn chairs probably would be more effective, especially if they were retired grade school teachers.

  2. Sean says:

    > And while we’re at it, stop calling the continental U.S. the ‘homeland.’

    This drives me nuts. When the 2000s America become 1930s Germany? What’s wrong with Department of Domestic Security?

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