The powers permitted to Government ought to be few and well defined. So believed James Madison. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of “police power”. It should be noted the Constitution only extends police powers to the federal government in case of “counterfeiting, treason, piracy and offenses against the laws of nations.” Which makes for disturbing news from Homeland Security. Seems citizens need to be aware of yet more when flying.

Walter Williams illuminates. There is a new federal offense for air passengers. Called “nonphysical interference”, it carries up to $1,500 in fines for distracting a Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) screener’s attention from what he is doing. Williams writes the definition of

… nonphysical interference is solely up to the discretion of a TSA screener since it isn’t defined in the regulations. TSA agents can levy fines for a passenger disagreeing with the behavior or arrogance of a screener.

Williams reports hundreds of accounts of rudeness by TSA employees. In March, 2004 alone there were almost 3,000 formal complaints about TSA behavior, none of which resulted in disciplinary action. This from folks who now have authority to fine and arrest you for “interfering” with their duties! This doesn’t inspire confidence in the proper exercise of power.

Even worse, Williams also reports TSA has an entirely new position. Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) are now examining body language, facial expressions and other behavior to determine which passengers exhibit behavior warranting a more detailed screening. Bob, a trained BDO blogging at TSA’s ‘Evolutions in Security’ blog, defends the practice. He notes,

The program was designed by Paul Ekman (PhD), … He’s been studying behavioral analysis for the past 40 years and has taught the TSA, Customs and Border Protection, CIA, FBI and other federal agencies to watch for suspicious facial expressions of tension, fear or deception. … After passing along his skills to US Customs, their “hit rate” for finding drugs during passenger searches rose to 22.5 percent from 4.2 percent in 1998.

and further relates

Between July 1, 2007 and February 7, 2008, 514 people were arrested after being referred for additional screening or directly to law enforcement officers by behavior detection officers. The arrests include unlawfully carrying concealed firearms or other weapons, possession of fraudulent documents, transporting undeclared currency, possessing illegal drugs, immigration law violations, and outstanding warrants.

I’ll admit the technique increased US Customs’ hit rates over 500%. I’ll also note it still failed over 75% of the time. That hardly seems a scientific result to brag about.

Bob says BDOs might have flagged some of the 9/11 terrorists and “subjected them to secondary screening and questioning.” That might have saved lives. And it sounds low key. Citizens are singled out for searching and a few questions and bad guys get busted. However, the WSJ reports BDOs are “agents … trained to watch what [citizens] … do and ask pointed questions to raise their stress levels … to conduct rapid-fire questioning to find inconsistent stories.” That’s a different scenario and the potential for abuse is obvious.

If we apply Customs’ 75% failure rate to Bob’s 514 arrests, over 2,000 innocent passengers were intentionally upset, provoked and abused in producing that result. Of the list Bob touts, only “firearms and other weapons” impact air travel safety, the real job of TSA. How many of the 514 busts were weapon related? 5? 25? 100? Allowing 25 undetected weapons through would be a 1% failure rate. Doing nothing would have vastly improved TSA performance.

This is an apples-to-apples comparison. Because a 75% failure rate detecting bad guys by behavior equals TSA’s rate for detecting bombs at the airport! Publishing figures USA Today says “stunned security experts”, the TSA itself admitted failing to detect 75% of bomb components it tried to sneak past screeners at Los Angeles International Airport. At Chicago’s O’Hare, the failure rate was 60%. These figures are from 2007. But the paper also reports “Tests earlier in 2002 showed screeners missing 60% of fake bombs. In the late 1990s, tests showed that screeners missed about 40% of fake bombs …”

In what should have been a highly touted result, the best screening results came from private screening companies. In 2007, “San Francisco International Airport screeners, who work for a private company instead of the TSA, missed about 20% of the bombs, the report shows.” In 2002, “… screeners failed to find fake bombs, dynamite and guns 24% of the time. The TSA ran those tests shortly after it took over checkpoint screening from security companies.” TSA could immediately improve results by over 200% if they simply privatize the process!

Something needs to change. The figures paint a dangerous and unflattering portrait. TSA has had a 150% turnover in personnel in just over 6 years. This means inexperienced employees, often with only basic training, are on the job. There is little in the way of technology to make up for the inexperience. This produces pressure on frontline TSA personnel. Top that off by allowing an agency without police powers to increasingly look like police and act like police and we create what ‘Consumer Reports’ calls “A ‘facade of security'”. We also have the real threat of creating the very environment terrorists desire; innocents victimized by authority in response to terrorism.

I wish I had solutions. I don’t. But it seems our current solution is becoming worse than what it seeks to prevent. Increasing TSA authority is the wrong response. We need less confrontational, more successful and, dare I say, non-governmental options. The goal is not safety at any price or even merely safety. It is safety within the constitutional bounds of smaller government and undiminished personal liberty. We’re at another one of those crossroads. Choose wisely.

Blue Collar Muse