Friday, August 11, 2006

Security Theatre, Broadway Style!

by Tom Bozzo

Dep't of oh freaking joy: The latest assaults on such remnants as may remain of the days of gracious air travel, just in time for two airline trips in the next two weeks. On the plus side, word from a colleague just returned from D.C. was that the National Airport security checkpoints were a breeze.

Now, none of us — especially those of us who make portions of our living as frequent flyers — want to have injury added to insult by being blown up in flight. But the important context for the present security crackdown is that similar methods had reportedly been planned for a plot to blow up multiple U.S. airliners over the Pacific, which was disrupted in the mid-90s. So the dire liquid threat has been bubbling, so to speak, for eleven or twelve years (if not much more), and only now merits a ban. Like the immediate post-9/11 ban on pointy stuff, subsequently partly rescinded in some common-sense directions, the impression is one of purely reactive ass-covering.

We are also told about how scary it is that everyday objects were to be employed to conceal the bombs' electronics, which should be non-news, though the additional wrinkle of separating the electronics package from the rest of the bomb is mildly diabolical. Of course, polls are suggesting that a sizeable minority of the public can't remember in what year the attacks of 9/11/01 occurred, so memory is short.

Needless to say, as my blogofascist betters have noted, the court stenographers are already reporting how great this will be for Republicans, even though what it really should say is that the moronic "flypaper" theory of the Iraq war is dead, and has had a stake driven through its heart and lots of garlic stuffed in the relevant body cavities. The damning reporting is that some Transportation Security Administration R&D funds had been redirected to fund agency operations. Per the NYT (op. cit.):
Cathleen A. Berrick, director of the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security and justice division, told a Senate committee in February 2005 that the Transportation Security Administration... redirected more than half of the $110 million it had for research and development in 2003 to pay for personnel costs of screeners, delaying research in areas including detecting liquid explosives. It has continued to redirect some research and development money, she said Thursday.
This is a byproduct of what should be Highly Telling as to the Republicans' ability to successfully wage the War on Terra — namely, certain Republican members of Congress hate the idea of staffing airport security checkpoints with well-paid and theoretically professionalized federal employees enough to shortchange the TSA.

There is a technological alternative to flying Naked Air (now with added thirst and sensory deprivation!) — while you might be able to get a doctored iPod past security eyeballs, sneaking same past sufficiently advanced scanners and image processors is another thing. Likewise, screening portals that add trace chemical detection to the usual magnetometer function are something you read about from time to time (h/t Sadly, No!). The former is the sort of problem that smart weapons solve when trying to hit tanks instead of rocks, and is certainly amenable to some throwing of money (including computing power) at it. Like, say, a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars blown on the Administration's quagmire-creation project.

That's not to say that there aren't some positive externalities. More people should check their bags than actually do — among the airlines' grand screw-ups, I'd have to count making people want (or think they want) to drag their bags on board planes, and the related boarding and deplaning delays. Of course, a total hand-luggage ban would effectively kill the industry as it would be the last the airlines saw of business travelers and their expensive electronics.

So qui bono (or who should)? My short list:
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