Monday, February 28, 2011

TSA Mea Culpa

Global Review has been tough on the TSA. We were suspicious of the 'need' for Backscatter machines, skeptical of the need to bureaucratize airport security, and indignant about the dictatorial nature of airport security.

Assuming it is telling the truth, however, the TSA has answered our concerns. In a sweeping, unanticipated report released today, the TSA showed that it is in fact data-driven, sophisticated in cost-benefit analysis, and surprisingly effective. NYTimes reports:
Previously classified information released in the report includes the precise details on the capture of three terrorists. Arab Israeli citizens, they avoided detection through normal espionage and surveillance by procuring tourist visas and booking unsuspicious round-trip itineraries. The three had different destinations in the U.S., and arrived and departed separately. However, all three shared a return flight from New York to Tel Aviv. In addition, each one carried just two of the three components needed to assemble the homemade bomb which they planned to detonate. This ingenious arrangement meant that one could be detected and detained - or miss his connecting flight - without spoiling the plot. Additionally, if any of them were caught, he could plausibly argue that he did not, in fact, have the makings of a bomb, and might be allowed to walk away.

The first to attempt boarding, in Atlanta, was caught, and kept from using a cell phone to warn his co-conspirators. A state of high alert went out to other TSA personnel around the country. The increased level of scrutiny led to delays and missed flights, making December 10th, 2010, a heretofore inexplicably bad day for air travelers. The second, in Detroit, was caught two hours later, and the third fled upon seeing the level of security in Boston's Logan Airport. He was arrested a week later.
That's a pretty impressive episode (hence my at-length quote). But it's an anecdote, and the real impressive part of the TSA's report comes in the meat of the report. Over the last three months of 2010, the TSA's internal testing system ran systemic attempts to breach security at most TSA airports and all non-TSA airports. The results, in summary, show the TSA to be effective and the Backscatter a godsend:
  • TSA airports intercepted 62% of attempts.
  • Non-TSA airports intercepted 48% of attempts.
  • TSA airports with Backscatter intercepted 64% of attempts.
    • Backscatter machines intercepted 77% of attempts.
    • Patdowns intercepted 92% of attempts.
    • Screenings through metal detectors intercepted 61% of attempts.
  • TSA airports without Backscatter intercepted 63% of attempts.
In the report, the results are further broken down by types of contraband. Drugs, for obvious reasons, were almost always undetected, while guns and explosives were almost always detected.

The report further reports the number of complaints (and even lawsuits!) faced by the TSA before and after the introduction of Backscatter screenings as a measure of cost to flyers, as well as length of security delay in each attempted boarding. These results are unexciting, but quietly conclude that TSA methods are no more onerous on travelers than non-TSA, and the Backscatter only slows the queue when people opt out.

The report lists the internal data (names redacted) of agents disciplined for sharing images created by the Backscatter, or reprimanded by supervisors for inappropriate comments to customers.

Global Review is also data-driven, and must firmly change its position to support for the TSA and the Backscatter (pending longer-term health risk investigations). Paradoxically, it's not the particular figures that concern us as much as the overall picture of a crisply efficient, citizen-oriented bureaucracy (I never thought I'd get to use that phrase!). If the TSA is policing itself, choosing best practices based on science and not lucre, and making its decisions transparent, then it has the consent of this governed.

Of course, this is all a fiction, contrived by yours truly for expositional purposes. It also serves as a road map for what sort of action the TSA would have to take in order to win the trust of us skeptics. Is it too much to ask that government account for its decisions and employ basic scientific methods of evaluation?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Will on Wisconsin

George F. Will, ever the sober-minded conservative, has the sober-minded conservative take on events in Wisconsin. As many have pointed out, government unions are fundamentally different than private-sector unions because, while the latter play tug of war against a management with whom they share the desire to survive, the former are playing tug of war against no-one and have no risk of extinction.

This episode, and the one in Indiana, are entrenching the Democrats as the party of "No" on fiscal reform. Not one penny, they screech, for austerity. Republicans, while they may be playing imperfectly are openly taking risks and are not fleeing their states to prevent votes or triggering Godwin's Law.

Of course, leftists are correct that Wisconsin Governor Walker's attempt to strip collective bargaining from public unions is about more than balancing this year's budget. True: weakening public unions will make Wisconsin leaner, more competitive, and less budget-constrained into the future. Public unionization is an anti-competitive practice aimed at shifting wealth from all taxpayers to a particular interest group; weakening or ending it will improve and cheapen government services.

Will concludes:
Walker, by a fiscal seriousness contrasting with Obama's lack thereof, and Obama, by inciting defenders of the indefensible, have made three things clear:

First, the Democratic Party is the party of government, not only because of its extravagant sense of government's competence and proper scope, but also because the party's base is government employees. Second, government employees have an increasingly adversarial relationship with the governed. Third, Obama's "move to the center" is fictitious.

TSA & Breasts

Drudge highlights a pathetic pair of stories on the Transportation Security Administration. In one, TSA agents repeatedly failed to spot a gun hidden in a woman's bra as she went through the full-body scanners. The agents in question were not disciplined. In another, TSA agents so traumatized Alaska state rep Sharon Cissna (D-Anchorage) with a sexually invasive "pat-down" - after spotting scars from her mastectomy - that she has elected to return to travel to Juneau by boat. The agents in question were not disciplined.

We hear a lot about how the Backscatter machines are making Americans more uncomfortable, but not much about making them more safe. Isn't it time to end this experiment?

Monday, February 21, 2011

One cheer for the Tea Party

In what was billed as a "victory" for President Obama, Congress rejected funding for a pointless new jet engine. Significantly, this occurred as the "Tea Party" representatives broke from traditionally pro-military-spending Republicans to join some Democrats in a 223-198 vote to remove funding. This is a small victory for Obama - he wanted the funding cut, defense secretary Gates wanted it cut - but it's an even bigger victory for the Tea Party, who accomplished what even a Democratic-controlled House couldn't do last year.

This is also the moment that Global Review has been waiting and hoping for: a concrete indication that the Tea Party was independent of the GOP Establishment, and will vote against frivolous spending from either wing. We may, years from now, look back on this vote as a turning point in Congressional spending.


Another week, another repressive North African dictator skedaddling. Libyans have risen en masse to protest and destroy symbols of the superannuated revolutionary, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. Tellingly, the rumors have him fleeing to Venezuela, which offers a chance that the "Day of Rage" fever could follow him across the Atlantic. Are we allowed to fantasize about the fall of the Cuban regime? It's as ripe and outmoded as any in the Arab world.

The news is moving too fast to know what to believe. Hat tip to Carol.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

As ManU is to the Yankees, so is Wolverhampton to the Browns

Red meat for American Premiership fans, The Post Game compares each English side to an American team, which is great water-cooler fodder if there's another person in your office who knows what Blackpool is, or a helpful primer on the Premiers if you don't normally look below Liverpool on the tables.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Get Over Jefferson

Ed Glaeser, a serious economist, has written a book on cities, and has a quick hit on NYTimes' Freakonomics blog. He praises cities as centers of innovation and environmentalism:
Henry David Thoreau’s sylvan lifestyle led him to destroy more than 300 acres of prime woodland (courtesy of an accidental forest fire he sparked). He would have done much less harm if he had lived in Boston...

Get Over Jefferson. America is, remarkably, still held captive by a Jeffersonian ideal of yeoman farmers and country living.
I hope to get a chance to read the book - Triumph of the City - soon.