Cheer Up, Citizen, Things Could Be Worse…

April 19, 2017

So I cheered up, and sure enough, things got worse. Apparently, despite the intelligence communities’ recent 9-page memo to airlines, airports, and law enforcement agencies that we remain top targets for terrorists, the draft White House budget seeks to eliminate or severely diminish funding for several security and air service programs, with most of the diverted funding going toward the president’s priorities of immigration enforcement and building that ridiculous border wall.

There are, of course, more than two sides to many of the arguments regarding some of the programs to be cut: (a) those who point out the absence of any terrorist incidents in the US since 9/11, so our system must be working well; (b) those who seem to believe the entire system is a severe case of bureaucratic overkill, and (c) various levels of in-betweeners. I inhabit a piece of each of those. Certainly, there’s a balance to be found, and it’s not static – the threat is an amorphous moving target, and the technology, policies and procedures must continue to remain agile to meet it, both domestically and internationally. As regular readers are aware, I tend to be a strong critic of certain TSA activities, but overall, TSA has made remarkable progress and remarkably few clunkers in the last 16 years… (who remembers the 30% false alarm rates of the “puffers”?)

The threats listed in the intelligence memo include:

  • "Artfully concealed weapons and explosives" on aircraft. Nationally, TSA screening picked up more than 3000 weapons last year – and yet failed to find more than 90% during one of their own red team tests, so we don’t really know what might be getting through. Let’s keep intensive recurrent training in the budget.
  • The "insider threat" posed by airport employees giving outsiders access to secure areas and planes.” True, although no worse than the potential threat from the insider employees themselves. Seems like more intensive recurrent training and vetting could handle a budget boost, including administrative personnel with access to the airport computer systems.
  • “Reports of suspicious drone activity.” Again, true, but still a largely theoretical and undetermined level of threat and essentially an FAA airspace issue; not much an airport or airline can do about it.

This takes us to the White House budget cuts. The intelligence memo suggests such security measures as training for various support personnel to “identify and report suspicious activity”. However, that’s also the basic description of the much-discredited Behavior Detection Officer program (BDO) which lacks any scientific basis whatsoever, often described as no better than a coin toss, and which is subject to just about every manner of personal bias that exists; I meet 7 of their criteria just walking in the door. Cutting the BDO program funding and moving those 3,000 (sic) officers back to the checkpoints and baggage rooms that they were hired for is pretty much a no-cost win-win - they can exercise their BDO “skills” there, while doing something useful.

Space constraints don’t allow room for greater detail on some additional cuts, but to summarize a few:

  • Grant program to support local police to airports will shift the cost of national requirements to local governments, and disproportionately so to the smaller airports.
  • Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response Program (VIPR), dispatches teams to some high threat airports and some other transportation facilities such as rail stations. It’s unclear whether their $57 million annual budget is justified by unspecified results; you can’t prove the negative, that the VIPR “deterrent” has stopped things from happening.
  • Training for the flight deck officer program, to allow pilots to carry weapons in the cockpit. $20 million. Really? In the past, two of them have shot themselves in the foot.
  • The Air Marshal program. A very large expense over a very small number of flights; and the airlines typically lose a great deal of revenue in the first-class seats, which means that your economy seats cost a little more. Cuts are under consideration.

All of this and more to meet the administration’s goal of public funding for 75% of the current TSA budget, which New York Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called a “cash raid to pay for the border wall.” Apparently, Mexico has gone very low profile in the White House budget process.

To quote that great American philosopher, Lily Tomlin, “No matter how cynical I become, it’s never enough to keep up”.