You can always tell a federal employee, but you can’t tell him much. Especially when you’re pointing out the exceedingly annoying inconsistencies and failures in airport security. You can ask me, or you can ask Rep. John Mica of Florida, who at least got a less belligerent response.
I flew from Washington/Reagan to Raleigh-Durham and back last weekend. I was invited to the Army’s Special Forces school at Ft. Bragg to observe a graduation exercise called “Robin Sage.” I learned a great deal and my respect for these RTGs (real tough guys, a species of Real Smart Guys who aren’t just smart, but much more dangerous than the average bear) grew. More about Robin Sage in a later installment. As usual, I had a few Paul Garmirian cigars with me, and the windproof Dupont cigar lighter that my generous wife had bought for me. It’s been pretty much everywhere I have been for the last four years.
But not on the return flight. Having passed through “security” at Reagan, and flown to Raleigh with said lighter in my pocket, I unreasonably assumed I could do the same on the return flight. But nooooooooo. When checking through “security” at Raleigh, I was told that “torch lighters” were verboten. I pointed out, to no avail, that the Transportation Security Administration people who manned the Reagan security checkpoints had no problem with this, so why were the Raleigh TSA people forbidding it? When I asked to speak to a supervisor, a tall chubby bureaucrat — making his best attempt to squeak out a command voice — told me the lighter was forbidden, and said that my choice was to throw it out, mail it back, or check the bag I was carrying. Pointing out that I was carrying it because I wanted to avoid delays at baggage claim was a statement of logic beyond his comprehension. In a contemptuous tone, he told me what I could do with the lighter. I was tempted to tell him what he could do with his badge, but I didn’t want to spend the night in the Raleigh federal slam.
These are the same idiots who — for the past two years — have many times come close to arresting me for carrying my key ring, on which hangs an expended blank 5.56mm rifle cartridge. The cartridge is one of the rounds fired at the funeral of a close friend, a Marine colonel. Drilled through, with primer expended and crimped as a blank, it’s much less a threat to anyone than my Uni-ball pen, which would make an excellent stabbing weapon were I so inclined. The most recent incident with the key ring was observed by a highly amused Virginia state trooper, who was doing his best to keep from laughing out loud. He at least knows how dangerous it is. The Moe’s, Larry’s and Curley’s of TSA clearly don’t.
These federal stalwarts are the “experts” we were promised to take over from the supposedly lax contractor employees who were doing the baggage and passenger screening before 9-11. Now, of course, the same people are doing the job, to no greater effect and with the attitude (and pay scale) only found among the entrenched bureaucracy. It was a great bait-and-switch by the federal employee unions. If you think that’s the view of one grumpy old columnist, listen to Rep. John Mica.
Mica is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on aviation. In a hearing last week, he asked some tough questions of TSA tribal chief James Loy. Mica wanted to know why the TSA wasn’t spending more on research. Loy admitted that of the $75 million Congress gave TSA last year, $60 million was diverted to pay for staff and salaries.
At Mica’s hearing, Republicans and Democrats alike criticized Loy about recent government reports that TSA “experts” were poorly trained, and failing to catch guns, knives and explosives at screening checkpoints. Loy said he’s “studying” the issue. Dancing the bureaucratic tango, Loy said, “Today there is no data found to conclude that private contract screeners are better or worse than the federal force…Please, let’s wait until the data is on the table.” Great idea. Let’s wait until the next three airliners are crashed into the next three targets and kill another three thousand Americans.
TSA is behind the power curve in virtually every respect. In addition to the failures of airport security screeners, TSA won’t meet the December deadline to have machines to screen checked baggage at every airport. (Please, it’s no use pointing out that there will be no penalty for TSA’s failure. If a contractor were doing this job, you could fire them. You can’t fire a federal agency.) And then there’s the missile problem.
Loy also said that the threat of hijackings was much greater than the threat of shoulder-fired missiles. I guess that’s what this sentence means: “The propensity of the threat of terrorists would still be by getting on the airplane,” Loy said. That is awfully hard to believe for several reasons.
First, our borders are terribly porous. It would be only by luck that we would interdict shipment of “manpads” — man-portable air defense SAMs — to a terrorist cell here. Once inside the U.S., the missiles could be delivered anywhere a soccer mom’s minivan can drive.
Second, we know from the arrest of a Russian businessman in England several months ago that people who have man-portable SAMs are as anxious to sell them as the terrorists are to buy them. If you have a good missile with good batteries and an undamaged propellant, any idiot can down an airliner.
Third, airports are huge and their outlying areas almost totally unprotected. A small van carrying two men and a couple of manpads will be caught only by extraordinary luck. And the effect of a manpad attack would create the tremendous damage on our economy that is the primary objective for OBL and his ilk. Downing several on the same day would damage our economy to an extent we can’t even foresee. Remember the attack on the Israeli aircraft in Mombasa about a year ago? My sources say that the reason it failed was only in the preparedness of the terrorist operatives who screwed up in firing the missile. They won’t get it wrong next time.
Is Loy right about the manpad threat here? It’s hard to believe he is. And there is precious little the TSA (or for that matter the Department of Homeland Security) has done — or is doing — to create a sense of confidence in his assessment.