The Naked Truth

In Saturday’s Joplin Globe (11/20/10) columnist Jay Ambrose says he has a problem with how the U.S. is handling anti-terrorism security, and I agree with him.  He sensibly points out that the new screening methods for airline passengers are controversial and maybe

Screening Checkpoint at Boston Logan Internati...

Image via Wikipedia

even unconstitutional.  While he points out that the airline safety record is good, it seems to me that the more pertinent point is that there is a better way to make air travel, and the nation in general, safe.  The way is the tried-and-proven Israeli way, i.e., profiling.

Thus far every single terrorist or would-be terrorist has been an Islamic ideologue.  If we adopt the profiling method it will be easy and quick for well-trained screeners to separate and send on their way the vast majority of people who clearly don’t match the profile.

Are moderate Muslims going to feel unfairly singled-out?  For sure some will, but perhaps the situation may inspire some of them to speak out more forcefully against the more radical members of their faith.  Frankly, if I were a moderate Muslim I would rather be

interrogated for a few minutes than groped or irradiated.

Israeli profiling has been successful for 4 decades.  How does it work?  I found a good account of that HERE.  Please don’t skip this link – it’s important.

Predictive Profiling representation

Image via Wikipedia

Another example is the Fox TV series, “Lie To Me”, based on a real-life profiler.  The technique works by asking pertinent questions and observing reactions from both the subject and her companions.  I am absolutely convinced that by using profiling the vast majority of passengers can be cleared very quickly and sent on their way, all without taking off their shoes, being zapped or being groped.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Why haven’t we already adopted this proven method? Our government does not attempt to justify its decisions but several likely reasons come to mind:

1.  Political correctness, or fear of being accused of ethnic bias.  But this is a false fear.  The added attention to Muslims is no slur against their religion any more than would be investigating unusually-large ammunition or nitrate shipments to survivalists in Montana.  Muslims need to be protected too and the fact is that almost all of the terrorists so far have been Muslim extremists.

President George W. Bush signs the Homeland Se...

George W. Bush creates DHS, via Wikipedia

2.  Bureaucratic momentum.  The TSA is a child of DHS, an unnecessary layer added during the Bush 43 administration to demonstrate action against 9/11.  As in big business, growth is a goal because it justifies extension of power and larger executive salaries.  (Aside to the GOP:  So you Promise to cut the size of government?  Start with DHS and then go on to the DNI, another unnecessary government layer.)

3.  Visible reassurance of safety to the flying customer base, in reaction to 9/11.  In effect this is largely a government subsidy to shore up the business.

TSA employee sleeping at Reagan National Airpo...

TSA employee sleeping at Reagan National, via Wikipedia

Then consider the weak link in the scanning system, the human being.  Imagine having a TSA job where you sit at a monitor and look at naked body images all day.  How effective is that going to be?  My mind boggles at the idea of such a job.  (Note:  based on casual observation the percentage of the population with attractive bodies these days is actually rather low.)  I don’t care if the viewers trade off, take breaks or whatever, human beings are going to find ways of fighting the boredom and I don’t want to think about it any further than that!  Use your imagination.

Ambrose mentions another reason to adopt a more sensible approach to screening, and that is that the present method uses resources better reserved for the alternate but very likely future modes of attack, such as WMD’s and bombs shipped as cargo.  Consider the absurdity of what is taking place in airport lines while half the cargo loaded under the passengers’ feet is unscreened. Ocean shipping is even worse.  Thus far it is impractical to even inspect or scan most shipping containers.  They go straight from ship to truck, contents unchecked.

Instead of developing methods to look for nukes and anthrax we are spending the money on body scanners.  Ambrose mentions a cost of $200,000 per machine.  Times 373 machines, that equals $74,600,000.  For that you could hire and train more than 7,000 profilers at more than $100,000 per year!  And that doesn’t even count the savings of the TSA jobs that would be replaced.  (We wouldn’t need that many.  According to Answers.com there are only 376 airports in the U.S. that have regularly-scheduled air service and most of those are very small.)

The Statue of Liberty, donated to the US by Fr...

Image via Wikipedia

A Fourth Amendment issue has been raised regarding the new policy, and properly so.  If groping and zapping doesn’t make you less secure in your person, I don’t know what will. That said, I would personally have no problem enduring the scans or searches if there weren’t a viable alternative, but we have one: profiling. As George Will notes in his column Sunday, not using profiling “. . . requires the amiable nonsense that no one has the foggiest idea what an actual potential terrorist might look like.”  (Memo to the TSA:  Step 1, announce, “All right, all you guys named Mohammed, step over there for some extra questions.”)

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Independent, tending progressive as the GOP recedes from its Eisenhower roots.
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7 Responses to The Naked Truth

  1. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim,

    You are on the mark but I doubt much will be done along these lines. Consider IF we had a “domestic terrorism” problem. Let’s say the KKK was blowing up airplanes to make racial points.

    Now imagine a guy going threw security, a white guy wearing a white hood. Would he be stopped and searched? Sure he would. What if it was only a “normal” white guy but he looked and acted like a redneck. Would he be stopped and searched?

    How many black guys would be stopped and searched to prevent such KKK terrorism? In Israel, zero. In the U.S., maybe zero as well. And for sure Al Sharpton would not be protesting if the latter was the case.

    Which is more important, personal dignity and convinence or personal safety? Well Americans scream BOTH of them are important and expect government to solve that problem, usually by throwing money at it.

    Now go to JFK in NYC. Suppose there is a group of Muslim men lurking just outside the terminal, talking with furtive eyes, looking nervous, sweating, praying, etc. Then two of the group go inside and check in for a flight within the U.S. Would they be instantly separated, questioned, probably searched, etc. No way.

    But if they were headed for an El Al flight enroute to Israel, what do you think would be the case? Now who is right in such a case?

    Anson

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Yes, Anson, I agree that I too tilt at windmills. Fun, isn’t it? Public acceptance and realism are different in Israel than here where we are more removed from reality.

      I get your reasoning, but I still think it would work. I am talking about hiring and training smart profilers who would spot a full range of threat-types. Don’t forget that there are subtle clues to nervousness such as facial tics and iris dilation. Nothing is perfect, I know, but what we have now is, IMHO, absurd.

      Jim

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  2. Jim Wheeler says:

    Update, 11/23/2010

    USA Today, in a front-page article today reported the lucrative cooperation of “several high-profile former government officials” in lobbying Congress to advance the use of body-scanning machines at airports. The people involved include Linda Daschle, former FAA official and wife of former Senator Tom Daschle, GOP majority leader, and Michael Chertoff,former DHS secretary during the Bush 43 administration. To me this is a clear conflict of interest. Shame on them! It is one thing to make tough decisions and quite another to make decisions that later enrich yourself at the public’s expense!
    A link to the article is:
    http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/news/20101123/1ascannerlobby23_st.art.ht

    I have long held that misbehavior of government officials should be penalized in proportion to their power and responsibility, whereas in practice malfeasance by such people has historically been treated in the opposite way, with deference to their former or present importance. Not only that, there is an even more outrageous aspect to this whole stinking heap of government hubris: top government officials have exempted themselves from the indignities of the security measures! That’s right, there will be NO zapping or groping of the anatomies of Nancy Pelosi, John Boehner, Harry Reid or Hillary Clinton, nor likely any member of Congress. C’mon, DHS, surely Osama is capable of disguising some granny as John Boehner! The only way to be sure is to scan or grope him – how else can we rest easy?

    Jim

    Members of Congress are specifically included in the Congressional Accountability Act (PL 104-1), which applies a dozen civil rights, labor and workplace safety regulations to the legislative branch. IMO, they need to be immediately included as subject to all security requirements issued for the general public by the DHS.

    Jim

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  3. Duane Graham says:

    Jim,

    I’m afraid, after I have thought about it for several days now (after I got the e-mail notice about your blog), that I can’t go with you on this one.

    Since I am an irrationally fearful flier, I have to tell you that I don’t mind walking through a scanner or being photographed by one (Tulsa has the “porno” type). Flying is hard enough for me without worrying about whether someone on the plane hasn’t been thoroughly screened. Contrary to what you say, I feel much more secure in my person, after I see the screening taking place (perhaps another mode of irrationality). And I assume there is some basic science behind the damn things, in terms of effectiveness.

    As for the groping, I don’t think there should be an option to avoid the scanning technology. And only those who merit a more thorough search (“probable cause”) should be subjected to pat downs and the like. And as for the Israeli-like methods, I believe they would work here only as a supplemental system, due to the exponentially larger number of air travelers (not just airports). I think there is about two million every day. Your 7,000 employees might be able to be hired for one year at a comparable cost to the machines, but what about 2, 5, or 10 years?

    As for the actual method itself, I would much rather go through a scanner than have to answer questions posed by a government official. I have traveled across the Canada-U.S. border several times and I hated being questioned about my business. That would make me much more uncomfortable, and I bet it would most Americans.

    More important, I must take issue with your acceptance of profiling as a method of screening folks. As I said, I have thought about it, and I just can’t bring myself to admit that the United States government should begin something that is so anathema to our way of life. (Not to mention the arguments that are made against it due to ineffectiveness.)

    We have a principle of equal protection under the law. And it seems to me that when you single out a person because you think he (forget “she” under your scenario) might be a member of a certain suspect group, that presents a major conflict with our values. For the most part, we are talking about American citizens here. What kind of damage does it do to those American citizens who you and others think are more likely to blow up a plane and thus deserve higher scrutiny? And what kind of place do we want to live in? I submit that in terms of individuals, there is nearly the same probability of the average Muslim American hijacking an airliner as you or I.

    And besides that, if large-scale profiling were done, don’t you think it would just be a matter of time before terrorists started training folks who don’t look like Osama bin Laden or have the name Mohammed? I suggest to you that it would only take one incident of sky terrorism perpetrated by a person who didn’t fit the profile to scrap the whole thing. And we would have traded away one of our most important national values for nothing.

    I have watched the right-wing and some on the left-wing go crazy over this issue, and I just don’t get it. The pat-downs I understand. No way they should happen except under probable cause circumstances. But “naked pictures”? Come on. That’s all I hear from critics. “The government wants to take nekkid pictures of my body,” which just about makes me sick.

    When I think about all the sacrifices that are made by our military men and women to protect us from terrorism, it seems a small price to pay to allow ourselves to be scanned by a machine in order to board an airplane.

    Finally, the only solid objection, in my opinion, to the way screening is being done right now, is that if a terrorist wanted to blow up a bunch of people, he or she could do so before boarding the plane: right there in the security line! Something should be done about that, although I don’t know what it would be without redesigning the airports.

    Duane

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Sure, Duane, I get where you are coming from on this and you raise some interesting points.

      The problem I have with the scanners is radiation. I heard some news item yesterday, wish I had paid more attention to it, but it stated that the TSA has yet to allow independent verification of the radiation levels it claims for its machines, and that makes me nervous. While I wasn’t a nuclear sailor I did have occasion to study the subject as a weapons officer. Radiation dosage in humans is cumulative and it promotes things like cancer and DNA damage. When I was a teen I had pretty severe acne and at that time I had some X-ray treatment on my back for it – they were dumber than rocks on the subject in the 50’s. I can not recall whether they shielded my thyroid at the time, but that gland is one of the more sensitive to radiation. Also, in the 1950’s the shoe stores got themselves some nifty X-ray machines that let you see how your new shoes fit your feet – I clearly remember seeing my wiggling toes right through the leather! Another source – luminous dials of watches, clocks and the like painted with a radium-containing substance. People have died from that. Then every year for 22 years when I was in the Navy I got my mandatory chest X-ray. That made no sense at all for a young man, but there was no choice given, and the radiation levels were much higher then. Then there are dental X-rays every year or two. Also, did you know that the radiation dosage from cosmic rays during a cross-country flight is about 1/2 that of a chest X-ray? (Not bad, I agree, unless you fly a lot.) Then there is radon gas, a radioactive substance that if far more common than most people realize. According to the EPA, radon is the number one cause (by radiation) of lung cancer in non-smokers.

      Now I realize that all of this may sound like babble from Coast-to-Coast Radio, but I have reached the age of 73 and, while I have no idea of how full my dosimeter is, I do know that it has all been cumulative and I want to avoid getting more of it. There is a pretty good discussion of the TSA’s machine, re radiation, at PoliFact and it makes it sound OK, but make sure you read right to the end because not all the experts are agreed. (N.B., I have already had one skin cancer surgery on one ear.)

      As for privacy concerns, yours sound pretty typical and you’re probably right about Americans in that regard. Personally, I don’t get the concern. I have nothing to hide about where I am or what I’m doing or how I got anywhere or most other stuff. If I could have my way everybody in the country would be issued a passport. It would sure help track the criminals, the perverts, AND the terrorists, to say nothing of simplifying the illegal immigrant problem enormously. (Obviously there would have to be safeguards, but I’m convinced they could be handled. Businesses and your credit card companies probably already know more than you suspect about R. Duane!) 😀

      Jim

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  4. ansonburlingame says:

    To both,

    First, please let me try to clear up the radiation issue. People that work around ionizing radiation are called “radiation workers”. They are monitored for “occupational” exposure to ionizing radiation and there are legal limits to that which they may receive. The limits are very high, set way back when, but workers in such jobs are almost always kept well below those limits. After 23 years as a “rad worker” in the nuclear navy my total lifetime occupational exposure was about 1000 millirem or 1 rem. My legal limit was 5x(n-18) with “n” being years of age. When I retired at age 46 that limit would have been 5x(46-18) = 5×28 = 140 rem.

    I know all of those numbers are “greek” to you or the general public. But the simple point is that normal men and women working at daily jobs in the “nuclear” field routinely receive measurable but very low levels of exposure. Such levels are at least a 100 times lower than legal limits and have long been successfully defended as adequate protection against any hazards to ionizing radiation. Only the anti-nuke crowd tries to argue safety to such workers and the “industry” routinely prevails in court suits over decades.

    Finally, based on my training and knowledge of radiation affects to the human body I have NO CONCERN of any sort over my exposure during years at sea on nuclear powered ships.

    Now civilians are not routinely monitored for radiation exposure. It can be shown conclusively that a normal life of chest x-rays, flying routinely at high altitudes, radiation exposure to kill cancer or diagnose disease using radioactive isotopes (Iodine 131 for thyroid exams as an example) and a host of other “civilian exposures” is hundreds of times lower than what I received as a rad worker for 23 years.

    Bottom line, the issue over radiation exposure for civilians from the new scanners is simply political scare tactics and should be ignored. You could “camp out” in one of those scanners for weeks on end and not come close to any realistic or dangerous levels of exposure to such radiation.

    And when pilots complain about being scanned or grouped and use rad exposure as part of their argument, ask them why then have not worn dosimeters throughout their flying careers at high altitude or what their exposure over a careen might have been as a result of such exposure from cosmic radiation, which is indeed “ionizing radiation” just like what I received (though at lower levels for the pilots) around a reactor plant. They were not monitored simply because the levels are not threatening in any way for long, high altitude flights.

    Moving beyond the scare tactics of radiation, let’s look at the ability of government to provided “qualified” inspectors (a la Israel) at airport check points. I hope you all agree that when we “ramped” up the TSA post 9/11 the qualification level to hire folks into that program was almost nonexistant in terms of “professionalism”, education, etc. You can see the results of such hiring and subsequent training practices anytime you encounter a group of TSA inspectors at an airport. Steely eyed professionals they for sure are NOT. I wonder if they are as good as the “inspectors” from the government checking out offshore oil rigs? How about your “egg” inspectors from government? I doubt that you can show any government organization of “inspectors” that rise to the level of professioanalism you suggest to deter terrorists from boarding airplanes. They just don’t exist in a bureaucracy. If you want real pros, you must allow private enterprise to hire, train and fire such men and women to reach that level of professionalism and you better be ready to pay for it when you sign the contract for BIG numbers.

    Just some temporary thoughts after a hard day at Disney World. Hell the bag searches to get into that place is better than some airline inspections!!

    Anson

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks for the info on radiation, Anson. I respect your expertise on the subject. At the same time, considering my own history of exposure, I will still want some independent data on the body scanners. I also had radiation “therapy” for prostate cancer, BTW – not fun. We owned a house with a basement family-room for 18 years, toward the end of which I got a kit and measured radon near the top of the acceptable level. It is also my understanding that radon can and does occur in houses without basements too. In other words, one’s dosimeter could be fuller than one knows. And just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me! 😈

      As for expertise in profiling I surely agree that such would require smart people and comprehensive training. That’s exactly the way the Israeli’s do it. You see this as a glass half-empty, but I on the other hand — just think of all those bright people out there who majored in art-history, English or other liberal arts and who can’t find a job. Some of them would be a fit. BTW, I believe it was generally agreed that oil-rig inspection was not seriously staffed because the regulators were too cozy with the industry. Anti-terrorism would hopefully be a different matter.

      I am wondering too about the other aspects of safety – screening cargo, mail and shipping containers. I still believe we are trying to “fight the last war while ignoring the next one”. When will we get proactive? I sure don’t see it happening.

      Thanks again for your input, Anson. Say hi to Mickey and the gang for us. 😆

      Jim

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