TSA Cops A Feel: More Bad Statistics

As far as I can discover, Janet “There’s Nothing To See Here” Napolitano’s newly created policy of feeling up and peeking under the skirts of random airline passengers has not resulted in the apprehension of a single terrorist.

Although Napolitano’s brainstorm—the Spanish tormenta en el cerebro is more evocative—gave us longer delays, missed flights, frustration, embarrassment, and ill will, and it hasn’t caught even one mad bomber, it has provided one positive benefit: a career path for perverts. The only thing this embattled minority had going for them previously was women’s prison guard. Now they can find ready employment at at any airport across the land. Celebrate diversity!

But to the statistics. The TSA’s policy of Grope, Peek, and Grab (GPG) is, of course, a screening program. Another screening program with which you might be familiar is prostate cancer checks, an examination which is now not that different from being allowed to fly by our beneficent, all loving government.

The possible result of any screen are four:

  1. The screen catches what it’s looking for. We’ll call this true positives. Thus, when the TSA agent snaps on his rubber glove and lovingly slides his lubricated—-wait a minute: that’s the PSA, not TSA, test. It’s so easy to be confused! For the TSA test, the agent snaps on his rubber glove and lovingly slides his non-lubricated hands over the parts of your body reserved previously for your husband or wife, he discovers that you have managed to wedge a destructive device into the folds of your shorts. The agent confiscates this device, an action which probably saves some lives. It is only “probably”, because we have not yet witnessed the use of a successful device, merely unsuccessful ones.
  2. The screen catches nothing, for there is nothing to catch. We’ll call this true negatives. The actions of the drooling TSA agent are the same as before. He comes at you with goggling eyes, rubs himself up one side, then down the other, only to discover no mysterious bulges (except in my case, of course). A search has been conducted, and nothing found. Disappoint abounds.
  3. The screen catches something innocuous. We’ll call this false positives. Same initial scenario: a guy who used to hang out in the airport toilets in a raincoat, but now wears a uniform and carries a gun, moves in for a leisurely grope. What’s this! Some gadget is discovered lurking in your smalls. You are disrobed—Marvin Gaye is pumped into the interrogation rooms—“We’re all sensitive people…”—and the gadget turns out to be a bobby pin pressed into service as a button, or something else the government had no business knowing about. Marvin Gaye is switched off, and a John Phillips Sousa tune escorts you from the room. No lives have been save, but at least you have been made to strip.
  4. The screen misses what it was supposed to have caught. We’ll call this the false negatives. Once more, the TSA agent pretends to be a fraternity member initiating pledges and tells the passenger to assume the position. Given the trajectory of Homeland Security pseudo-laws, the passenger will soon have to voice, “Thank you, sir! May I have another?” after each body part is poked. Failure to do so will be seen on par with “failing to cooperate with a law enforcement officer” (no snickering, please). But in spite of the earnestness of the TSA agent, regardless of his frequent forays into your foyer, he misses the destructive device you had hidden on you.

We judge the success of any screening program by inputing the true and false negatives and true and false positives into some fancy mathematical formula, which tells us whether the program has any skill. I have done this.

Conclusion: Napolitano’s GPG screening program has no skill. It has caught no one (no true positives), it has an incredibly high rate of pestering innocent passengers (nearly all true negatives), and when it does find something it always turns out to be harmless (a large number of false positives), and worst of all it has missed all instances of people truly sneaking on destructive devices (as far as we know).

Thus we can prove that the GPG program is a complete bust. It is inept, useless, and causes more harm than it says it prevents. The only possible argument that one can offer for continuing the GPG is that potential terrorists are dissuaded from flying because they might be searched. But I ask you: where is the empirical evidence for this statement? There is none. It is a belief, a model, unsupported by any observation.

Who can we blame for this predicament? Our founding fathers:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

See? Not one word about improper use of full body scanners or lubricating jelly.

Update My Marvin Gaye comment was prescient: I am listening now to WABC in New York (Saturday, 7:45 am) and they are playing a parody of the same Marvin Gaye song I had in mind.

25 Comments

  1. Spitting into the wind again? All of this has been said before. The slippery slope was entered 9 years ago (or more). I was tossed against the wall at T4 Heathrow in 1986 for having the temerity to inadvertently carry a pound coin through the metal detector. Anyway, who says that the act of attempting to board an aircraft isn’t “probable cause”?

  2. Can anyone describe how the Israeliis do this? Given their high threat level and apparent success at thwarting bombers, etc., surely we should adopt their practices – including profiling or whatever else can be shown to work.

  3. The Israelis profile. Many years ago SWMBO flew to Israel with the intention of diving the Red Sea, Sharm al Sheik. The Sinai was then in Israeli possession. She brought her rig – sans tanks – with her. She flew El Al.

    Prior to boarding, she was asked to visit an office where she might discuss her trip. Intelligent questions were asked. They had found someone on their staff who was familiar with diving, who then asked some technical questions. She knew the procedures and how to work the dive tables cold. They wanted to know where she was going to dive and how she’d set up her trip. Being the meticulous sort she is, it was all planned, all could be checked out and she made the flight.

    One might conclude that you need someone who is good at identifying anomalies, and knows how to measure their efficacy, if that’s the right word., if you want to be serious about profiling.

    Due to some possibly confused understanding of equal protection, or equal rights, such methods seem not permissible for agents of the US government.

    It may also be, that we cannot muster sufficient numbers of the intelligent people I see doing these things in other lands – too much cheating on exams.

  4. Forgive this additional intrusion, but…..

    In 1973, I was waiting to board a flight from Ohare to St. Louis. I think this was well before the metal detectors, and as you will soon read discretion on the part of the airlines. One of the passengers was asked to submit to a body search. This search was unlikely to have been as intrusive as what is now being done. They had a little room which could hold the searchee, the searcher and a witness.

    All three entered the room and came out a bit later. Never having seen this sort of thing, I asked the gate-attendant how this gentleman had come to their attention. “One way ticket bought with cash.”

    This was in the days of unexpected trips to Havana.

    About the same time, an armed teenager entered the cockpit of a plane just departed from Houston. He wanted to go to Newark. The crew asked him if he had really thought about this and maybe, since the trip would be free, he might want to go somewhere more interesting.

    Nothing doing, Newark it was, so they went there and he was arrested.

    I used to eat Sunday breakfast with a bunch of airline pilots who also flew lesser planes. This story was very popular for a few weeks.

    Unfortunately, no one ever found out what particular attraction Newark had for this kid.

  5. Little of this intrusion and expense is needed. The sensible approach is to arm all the pilots.

    I don’t believe this abuse is unintentional. We are all suckers. Follow the money.

  6. One could argue that there have been zero true positives, therefore the system is working. Sort of like the Elephant Repellant we use here in Texas to keep pesky pachyderms away.

  7. While I agree with your main emphasis I do have a nitpick:

    “The only thing this embattled minority had going for them previously was women’s prison guard.”

    Nope, Grade school teacher, especially gym teacher, scout leader, priest, men’s prison guard, rock star, Judge, politician, actor, director…

  8. @j ferguson – the problem with the Israeli approach is that it is not compatible with “security by the lowest bidder”, which is really what the powers-that-be want. Make it appear to be safe, make it cheap (capital costs for scanners don’t count, as they come from a different budget).

  9. Here’s a link on the Israeli system:

    http://volokh.com/2009/12/27/israeli-airport-security-measures/

    Having traveled through Europe several times, the one thing that is immediately noticible is the high-visibility of powerful weapons. Not really wanting to ask, I assume that these weapons are of the “automatic” type, that is, firing at high rates of speed.

    The first time one notices weapons like this in an airport, it is unsettling. The second, or further iteration, not so much.

    I do like the Israeli system, however. Being asked a couple of questions does reveal a lot of information about the person being interviewed. But reflecting upon those involved in the screening process at PDX, I don’t find the level of curiousity present to rely upon these techniques.
    .

  10. Thank God I am not on airplanes two or three days per week anymore. Perhaps Janet Napolitano could make the experience more interesting by giving passengers a choice of who will do the groping.

    The very language of testing got my attention. There has to be some utility in the phraseology of statistical testing outside of statistics. I have this vision of addressing certain Congressional Representatives as False Positives, or True Negatives.

    Is a True Freshman a True Positive, or a True Negative? I guess it depends on the statistics.

  11. Picking one more nit,

    “2. The screen catches nothing, for there is nothing to catch. …….The actions of the ……..TSA agent are …. He ……. rubs himself up one side,…..”

    true positive, but I’m only assuming the agent himself isn’t trying to sneak something aboard.

  12. I have always carried a pocket knife. On a flight from Mississippi to Seattle in 1975 I had my Buck Rancher model in my pocket with a 3 1/2″ blade. The lady checking my pockect items opened it up and laid it across her palm and it pretty much went from one side to the other. She looked at me then looked at the knife again and closed it up handed it to me and wished me a good flight. I thiught for sure I would lose my knife that day.

  13. I received the TSA grope last week. The creepiest part about it wasn’t the pat down itself, but the administrator trying to affirm that he is not groping me. “I am patting your buttocks with the back of my hand.” I would have felt better about it if he hadn’t been trying so hard.

  14. There is an opportunity cost of security that no one is calculating. If you waste 10 minutes of your life waiting in security lines every time you fly, how many lifetimes are wasted every day. People drive, because flying has become too inconvenient.

    We may actually be safer with less security.

  15. Could you run the statistics for El Al? Israelis use a different method, and it seems to work.
    Terrorists don’t go near El Al because they know they will be caught, and Israeli security isn’t scanning or groping grandmothers and small children. Why? Grandmothers and small children don’t fit the profile — key word that — profile.

  16. Doug M.
    Good point. I will drive anywhere within a 5 to 6 hour radius rather than fly based on 1 hour to airport, 1+ hour wait time at airport, 1.5 hour flight plus 0.5 hours to pick up car plus 1 hour+ to destination. If it is downtown NYC or DC then I take the train from just outside Boston.

  17. These screenings are a direct reaction for the packaged bombs that were sent to the West from the Middle East. The problem there was unscreened cargo from a faraway and unstable place, and the solution is to institute these domestic pat-downs. I suppose the intended effect is that the public will be reassured that “at least the government is ‘doing something'”, nevermind that the “something” hadn’t been thought through. Altho, it would have made more sense to have more extensive pat-downs in the wake of last year’s would-be Christmas-day bomber. The public might have been more receptive to such intrusions at that time.

    After I had an extensive pat-down (and a swab for explosives) at a smaller airport in the Midwest on Halloween day, I noticed that one of the ground crew (who passed freely back and forth between secure areas of the airport) was dressed in a full-body Gumby costume. I found this to be highly disturbing, as anyone could be in that costume with direct access to airplanes and cargo–even though there was an ID tag jauntily clipped to what would be Gumby’s ear.

  18. What a joke!!!! More useless rudeness from our hugely incompetent government.

    The best way to cure this nonsense is to outlaw all taxes. If those chuckleheads didn’t have free access to our money, they would disappear like cockroaches when the light is flipped on.

    One thing is abundantly clear: groping Fat Janet is a job you couldn’t pay me enough to do.

  19. Katie, I think these “enhanced” screenings are indeed a result of the underwear bomber. It just took TSA until now to put them in place.

    Let’s follow the logical progression. First, the shoe bomber incident occurs, and we all have to take off our shoes to go through security. Next, the underwear bomber incident occurs, and we all have to be groped or effectively strip searched through a whole body scanner. I don’t even want to think about what we’re going to be made to do when some yahoo decides to hide his bomb materials in a body cavity!

  20. Keith,
    We were thinking of the exploding bra.

    Somehow I get the feeling that TSA is being toyed with by the terrorists. They don’t even have to really blow anything up, only propose a scheme which will work and have a volunteer get caught with it.

    I think the colon bomb is just around the corner.

    Why destroy us when we can be provoked into doing it to ourselves. Leverage.

  21. anyone have the link to the Marvin Gaye parody mentioned above? I also heard it on the radio + would LOVE to pass it on

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