Sunday, November 21, 2010

The TSA Must Go (An Open Letter to My Representative and Senators)

Enough is enough, and the recent intrusive searches by the Transportation Security Administration have exceeded the limit.

Past security measures have clearly been ineffective.  The TSA has caught not one shoe bomber after x-raying billions of shoes.  The TSA has caught not one liquid bomber after confiscating tons of shampoo and toothpaste.  They do find a few guns and knives; as far as a citizen can tell from news reports, all fall into the “Oh, no!  I forgot that was in there,” category.  Now we have underwear checks despite the fact that ten months have gone by without another attempted underwear bombing.

Every time some plot fails, Secretary Napolitano tells us, “The system worked.”  That is true only if “the system” involves depending upon inept terrorists who can’t set off their own bombs, and upon tips from others.

Her assertion that “naked x-ray” machines are safe is about as believable as “the system worked.”  In a news conference last week, Secretary Napolitano listed the agencies who had declared her machines to be safe, including the “U.S. Science and Standards Association.”  As far as I can tell, there is no such organization.  (I think the Secretary of Homeland Security must mean the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a government agency, which, with the FDA, assessed these machines in 2006.  If so, she has shown appalling ignorance in a very important area.)

The FDA and TSA, in an October 12, 2010 letter to Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, characterized the machines not as “safe” but as “presenting no more than a miniscule risk to people being scanned…”  I suppose that is somewhat like the miniscule risk of being killed by an underwear bomber, in other words, a risk the avoidance of which justifies extreme measures!

Regardless of who might have declared these machines to be safe, there is good evidence that the damage done by ionizing radiation (as is used in the backscatter x-ray machines) is cumulative.  The British Medical Journal, BMJ, published an article, “Risk of cancer after low doses of ionising radiation: retrospective cohort study in 15 countries” in their July 9, 2005 edition.  The New England Journal of Medicine published “Exposure to Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation from Medical Imaging Procedures” in their August 27, 2009 edition.  In the latter study, the authors worried that, “The growing use of imaging procedures in the United States has raised concerns about exposure to low-dose ionizing radiation in the general population.”

No matter how low the radiation dose from these machines may be, it covers the entire body by design, and the effects, according to medical experts, are cumulative.

Of course, travelers can refuse the naked x-ray procedure.  The alternative is a “pat-down” that people have likened to sexual assault.  This applies to children as well as adults.  One cannot even decide to forget the whole thing and go home without being threatened with a civil lawsuit!

Enough is enough!  I have stopped flying for pleasure and will reduce my business flying to the absolute minimum.  That’s two airline trips I won’t be taking in the next three weeks.  That will not bankrupt Delta, but making people detest flying will certainly not help the airline industry.

If enhanced searches of passengers will not improve airline security, what will?  Solid investigative and intelligence work, such as that which caught the “liquid bombers” in Britain before they could do any harm.

I call upon Congress to stop the funding of increasingly intrusive measures by the TSA and transfer the funds to the FBI for counterterrorism investigations.

And, in the meantime, I call upon Congress to require all TSA employees to undergo advanced imaging screening at the beginning of every shift.  After all, they are “on the front lines” according to John Pistole, and it is important to be certain they don’t bring any contraband into secure areas of airports, right?


  1. I disagree with several of your points:

    1."TSA must go"
    Does this mean no screening of passengers or luggage? If screening stops, US aircraft will not be allowed to fly into most countries. Also, the TSA also screens checked luggage. If luggage screening stops, large bombs can be checked onto planes easily.

    2. "Screening is ineffective; the only weapons confiscated are brought by mistake"
    If screening stopped, many people would bring weapons and dangerous objects onto planes. Americans love their guns. The only thing preventing them bringing them with them is screening and the threat of seizure.

    3. "The scanners are unsafe"
    Maybe. I would like to see more analysis by health professionals on this. The problem I see is that many people are bad at assessing risk. Even if professionals declare the machines to be safe, many people will still be convinced they are dangerous, just as many people refuse vaccinations because they misjudge the risk.

    4. "The alternative is a “pat-down” that people have likened to sexual assault."
    I've had a pat-down recently while going through airport security. It was not remotely like a sexual assault. Really, it was a minor inconvenience. Seriously, we have soldiers facing danger in miserable places to supposedly protect us, but a pat-down is more than we can handle? Compared to sitting for hours in a cramped airplane seat breathing dry, nasty air, a pat-down is a positive joy. To refuse to fly because of a pat-down seems a bit of over-reaction.

  2. Well, we actually had no screening until the 1970's.

    However, I have no problem with metal detectors, x-ray inspection of carry-on luggage, and screening of checked luggage. These are reasonable precautions in 2010 for the reasons you mention. And, we did all of them except screening of checked luggage without the TSA.

    There is no evidence that "enhanced" pat-downs, naked x-rays, or shoe-less entry makes us safer. The TSA keeps reacting to last week's threat.

    The real bang for our anti-terrorist buck comes from investigative and intelligence work. That is what will stop the next threat, and it's where we should concentrate our resources.

  3. It turns out that four scientists expressed concern for the health effects of backscatter x-ray machines in a letter to the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology in April, 2010. You can read their analysis here:

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