Current Events Public Policy

Does the TSA stop terrorist attacks?

An article on Slate wonders “Does the TSA Ever Catch Terrorists?”  An excerpt:

The aforementioned “behavioral detection program,” also known as SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques), has been one of the TSA’s most roundly criticized initiatives. In May, the Government Accountability Office released a report noting that SPOT’s annual cost is more than $200 million and that as of March 2010 some 3,000 behavior detection officers were deployed at 161 airports but had not apprehended a single terrorist.

Now, I admit, that I am not an expert in anti-terrorist tactics.  TSA activities, however, should not be evaluated solely on the number of terrorists they catch.   As the article mentions at the end, TSA screening would be very useful if it could prevent terrorists from entering the airport.

Consider the following equation:

  • Sucesful Attacks=P(Attempt)[1-P(Caught|Attempt)]

The TSA can reduce the number of terrorist attacks either by increasing the probability someone who attempts a terrorist activity is caught, or reducing the probability of terrorist attempt.  The Slate article basically assumes that if the number of terrorist attempts is held constant over time and no one has been caught, then P(Caught|Attempt) is 0.  This certainly would represent one type of failure.  However, if the TSA can reduce the number of terrorist attempts near 0, then the TSA could feasibly be very efficient.

[Even if at least 16 individuals later accused of involvement in terrorist plots flew 23 different times through U.S. airports since 2004, but TSA behavior-detection officers didn’t sniff out any of them.]


  1. If we are to go on probabilities, should we not then weight factors such as those who are more likely than others to commit terrorist activities? I’ve stated numerous times, if you can demonstrate to me that a significant percent of terrorist activity is perpetrated by overweight blonde, bespeckled grandmothers carrying large totes full of toys for her grandchildren, I’ll be more than happy to submit to an in-depth security screening *once* in exchange for a card that clears me for deep on-the-spot screening at the gate rape stations.

    Honestly, the planes carry cargo shipped from all over the world which, we now know, can as easily carry explosives (reference printer toner cartridge bombs), and tell me how the TSA is making these package shippers demonstrate they are safe? These packages are on commercial flights you and I fly – hidden in the cargo hold. Tell me how safe we are because some unknown person of unknown criminal background looking at my revealed nakedness or touching my intimate areas does any of us any good?

    I’m prone to anxiety attacks. I was raised to be modest about my body. Whether you think that is a good thing or not, why should I be precluded from traveling the friendly skies unless I submit myself to this type of handling? I’m not the problem!

    Let the airlines arrange for (and pay for) their own security measures. Let the passengers decide with their dollars what works and what risks they are willing to take. Get the government OUT of my pants!

    I feel violated just at having had to pay for somebody to feel me up!

  2. @Schelly…You didn’t mention why you have to go through a patdown. If it is because you just refuse to go through the body scan then thats your choice. I have heard all the argumnets about the radiation and I know for a fact that you get more NORMS, naturally occuring radioactive material, just walking around outside in the sunlight or being encased in the fuselage of the plane. You would have to go through the scanner just about every day for one year to get the same radiation as one chest x ray. As for seeing your naked body? If you actually look at one of the images the machine produces it looks like a ghost. Now if someone is so perverted that looking at a photo of a white ghost gets them off then so be it, just shows we have some sick people in the world. Now if your setting the walk through metal detector off it has to be one of two things, either you have a hip or knee replacment or a pacemaker. Unfortunantly nothing can be done about this. The other reason is what I witness a lot when I fly. People just refuse to remove stuff from theiy pockets or remove their huge belt buckles. This is a simple fix but they always think they are above the law and shouldn’t have to.
    I fly at least 4 times a month and have yet to have any problems at the check points. I have my liquids ready, wear shoes I can slip on and off easily, don’t wear any jewlery (except for a watch), and bought a TSA friendly computer case for my laptop.
    Yes it sucks that even little ol granny has to undergo the same process but look at it this way. Granny has kids and grandkids which she would probably do anything for. A terrorist wouldn’t think twice about taking avantage of this. If they hold her family hostage and give her orders to board the plane with a bag they give her she would probably do it to save her family. All they have to do is tell her it’s drugs and as long as she did as told everybody would be fine. And of course a terrorist might lie and say drugs when it is actually an IED rigged timer or remote switch. No if they just let granny through without checking her because she is old they just put everyones life in danger. It’s not that granny would try to blow the plane up on her own but a terrorist would find a way to take advantage of her not being screened.
    TSA might not have caught any terrorist but who knows how many they have stopped. If the terrorist knows there is a chance he will be caught he is less likely to try and board the plane. Make sense?
    Your last statement says let the airlines arrange their own security. Actually the airlines are the ones who agree to TSA being there. It won’t matter if TSA is at the airport or a private security company, the rules will be the same because the FAA, DHS and the airlines are the ones who set the rules. If TSA is gone and a private company brought in you will still have the same workers. Where do you think most of the TSA workers came from? The private companies that TSA replaced. When those workers were laid off TSA hired them. If TSA is run off the private companies will just hire the laid off TSA officers since they are already trained in the rules that will still be followed. I’ve talked to a couple of TSA workers who were with the private companies before 911 and they will tell you first hand that the old security was a joke. Something else to consider is the airports and airlines do not have to pay for TSA but if they were gone they would have to pay for a private company, and who do you think that cost will be passed on to?
    If you think getting a pat down from a TSA officer is getting felt up then you but have led a very sheltered life.

  3. All of the money wasted on the new knee-jerk TSA measures (wasted, that is, unless you’re on the dole) would be much better spent on more intelligence analysts and agents. That’s how terrorism is thwarted, not by harassing millions of travelers.

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