Inspector Clouseau, We Need You!

X-ray machines and metal detectors are used to...

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For those of you who may have missed the ABC News item the other day on airport security, here is an interesting item that should be a 5-alarm wakeup call for the Department of Homeland Security.  You can’t make this stuff up.

An Arab-looking American businessman, Farid Seif, passed through TSA security at an airport last fall with a loaded Glock pistol in his otherwise-empty computer case.  He didn’t mean to.  He had somehow forgotten it was there.  Upon finding it after landing, he reported it.  Here is the ABC News item.

As you will note from the link, the TSA lapse was not unusual.  Undercover agents are successful in passing simulated prohibited items through security more than half the time.  The situation is so bad that the TSA classified the results of such tests, probably out of embarrassment.  There is no indication that anyone has a solution to the problem, nor that anyone was fired or even reprimanded because of it.

I posted on this subject last month under the title, The Naked Truth.   The

Row of Postal Clerks Processing Mail

Mail Sorting, Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

problem is that human beings are inquisitive social creatures who are not suited to “mind-numbing” boredom, and what could be more-so than surveying endless lines of average Americans day after day looking for that one-in-a-million exception?  Not much that I can think of.  Ranks right up there with mail-sorting and airline pilot.

Airline pilot?  Yes.  Remember the two guys who flew past Minneapolis this year while in rapt discussion of pay and benefits issues?  Take a fighter jet jockey who is used to adrenalin rushes and put him behind the controls of a huge lumbering passenger jet, then alternate his day/night cycles until he isn’t sure what day it is.  The taxi and takeoff are the most exciting parts and he gets to eat airport food too.  Yum.  At altitude he is on auto-pilot for hours.  The GPS tracks position exactly – no challenge anywhere in sight.  Boooooorrring!!!   IMHO, assigning a human being to any boring security job for is just asking for trouble if you don’t test the alertness every few days with some kind of Red Team.

Human beings just aren’t good at boring jobs.  When I was in manufacturing, my second profession, I noticed that the people on the assembly lines compensated for the boring nature of the work by socializing with one another.  The poor TSA people have only limited opportunity for even that.  I sympathize.  About the only thing worse I can think of is sitting at home watching daytime TV and counting flowers on the wall.

The Pink Panther cartoon character

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In my previous post on this subject, I recommended the Israeli method, i.e., profiling.  At least a profiler has the daily challenge of selecting the right suspect out of the lineup and a decent chance of catching a real terrorist once in a while.  All we are doing with the TSA body scans and pat-downs is putting a small dent in the unemployment line while intensely annoying airline passengers.  It sounds like the plot of a Peter Sellers/Blake Edwards movie, except . . . we’re living it!


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: Democratic.
This entry was posted in Government size, Government waste, Terrorism. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Inspector Clouseau, We Need You!

  1. You really took this in an interesting direction! I was expecting the usual TSA rip job that I have seen much of on the news. This is a cool and unique angle. I couldn’t imagine having to look in bag after bag, hour after hour, day after day. The local library here in Decatur has a policy where no one does the same job for more than an hour at a time. It seems to be a very good way to keep employees engaged. I wonder if the TSA has the capability to vary the work patterns (or maybe they already do).

    Nice Blake Edwards reference as well. I was always partial to his darker work (An Experiment in Terror/Days of Wine and Roses), but the Panther stuff was very funny.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks for the comment, Keith. It occurred to me after I wrote the post that there’s another job that probably should top the list of most-boring: air marshal. Just think about what that entails! And, last I heard, the airlines had asked the government to move them out of first class. To me, that would be a job pretty darn deep in the inferno. 🙂



  2. I think the issue is basically that we’re trying to insure against something so rare that the guards get to bored to pay attention by the time a real threat emerges. How often does TSA plant some one to caught with a fake (and harmless I hope) bomb, or a bag with gun with the firing pin removed? It seems like they should just to give the TSA regulars something to find more often. That would keep them more engaged and check the process at the same time..


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Right Bruce, anyone in security looking for some rare event in going to be bored out of their skulls (unless you’re Barney Fife, and maybe even then), so it stands to reason that a system like that needs to be constantly tested. Or it will fail.

      Are you old enough to remember the Pink Panther movies? Classics. In them, Inspector Clouseau had an oriental houseboy whom he charged with the responsibility of testing his (Clouseau’s) alertness and abilities. When the Inspector arrived home after his day’s work, the houseboy would attack him ferociously. I had hoped that someone would catch on to the similarity.

      I have no idea how often Red Teams run tests, but it’s bound to be expensive. Wouldn’t it be easier and more effective to just switch to profiling? But if we did the administration would have to fire hundreds or thousands of civil servants, incur the wrath of the civil service union, and admit they were wrong to even create the TSA. How likely is that? Thus bureaucratic momentum. (There ought to be a Latin phrase for that.)



  3. ansonburlingame says:

    OK, consider this perspective,

    I spent a lot of time on submarine patrols during the Cold War. Some of them were tip of the spear kind of thing, lurking near a Soviet base to monitor “stuff”. Every time the periscope went up, well, you never knew for sure who might be looking at you. No way that was boring and stress was a killer of sorts. We only stayed “on station” for reasonably short periods because of such stress.

    But then I also went on long patrols carrying doomsdays ballistic missiles for long periods submerged. Talk about boring. Our job was to “hide with pride” and await a Presidential order to launch our missiles which of course never came.

    But we had drills all the time, many begun straight from Cheyene Mountain calling on all “alert forces” in our entire nuclear arsenal to do certain things. Those were NOT boring and believe me, if we screwed up our respnses, skippers and others were fired, outright.

    Step one, run so many drills on TSA employees that they become exhausted with such efforts. It will keep them on their toes particualrly if their jobs depend on their responses.

    And more importantly, a lot of folks will never volunteer (apply for a job) under such circumstance.



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      OMG. Comparing TSA operations to SSBN missile patrols!

      OK, the situations have boredom in common but we are never going to be able to afford enough Red Teams to do the job. And if you make it as rigorous enough to do the job you are not going to get low-pay civil servants to tolerate it. They will apply for the job all right, but you will not get away with treating them like sailors. That is pure apples and oranges. Sailors, screened and committed to careers and military discipline versus unionized civil servants who can’t be fired and who don’t really like their jobs to start with. Again, OMG! C’mon, Anson, get a reality check. 🙄

      BTW, I think we both know what few civilians appreciate: Maintaining interest and discipline under boring patrol conditions takes imagination, determination, endurance and plain hard work. That’s why so few people achieve the job you had, and even some of those fail. You were the product of a very long filtering process that began with USNA and survived two decades of filtering. I was wrong. It’s not apples and oranges, it’s apples and basketballs. OMG!

      A cadre of profilers would be less expensive and tremendously more effective.



  4. I am that old. Thank you for reminding me Jim.

    I didn’t mean to take profiling off the table. I would hope we would be more than cautious in implementation though. It’s a bit of jump to end up with manzanar, but that’s what I want to avoid.


  5. ansonburlingame says:


    I did not address profiling as you know I am in agreement with doing so, just like the Israelis.


    The problem with TSA, for now seems to be that in fact we are relying on “low paid, unionized civil servants” to do a “man’s” job, keeping bad stuff AND people off of airplanes It is too important a task to turn it over to the lower rungs of a bureaucracy.

    What is wrong with training and drills, tough training and tough drills with people failing to perform as required being cast aside. Should we not have “security forces” at our airports at least up to the same level as the patrolman on a beat in the police forces?

    To accept “no loads” in terms of qualifications and more important performance, performance, performance is a travesty particularly when people’s (yours, mine and our families) lives depend on such security.

    And don’t ever forget that those sailors under our watchful eyes came from exactly the same “places” a lot of TSA workers come from. And left to their own devices those same sailors would perform just as many TSA workers now perform. That is pure human nature.

    It is all about standards and leadership my friend. And when such prinicples are brought to bear effectively, it doesn’t cost that much money!!!



  6. Jim Wheeler says:

    I sympathize with your view on this, Anson, but based on my experience with the Civil Service I must point out that leadership can only go so far when the job context differs so greatly. Consider the differences.

    Military sailors: selected from a well-filtered pool of mentally and physically qualified applicants, extensive training, oath of obedience, subject to significant disciplinary penalties for non-compliance, significant opportunities for education and promotion, increasing responsibilities and leadership opportunities (job satisfaction).

    Civil Servant screener group: selected from applicants with minimal qualifications but no criminal history, minimal training, not subject to UCMJ, unionized, can not be fired without massive paperwork and reviews, little if any promotional opportunity, boring work, and a generally adversarial relationship with airline passengers.

    If you are going to overcome those differences with a positive leadership approach, I wish you all the luck, but don’t expect me to bet on your success. And the record so far, with about 70% failure to spot Red Team tests, appears to support my pessimism. It is not working.

    You have a natural “can-do” attitude, but I am respectfully suggesting that this milieu is dissimilar from your experience.



  7. Jim Wheeler says:

    I am NOT advocating doing away with basic screening such as basic, armed security personnel, metal detectors and rules for what can be carried aboard, but I think we can do away with body scanners and intrusive pat-downs of little old ladies.


  8. ansonburlingame says:


    I am NOT just talking about leadership “on the ground” in the terminals for sure. I am talking about leadership in developing the policies, training, qualifications to “get in the door”, etc. Leadership at the “bottom” cannot overcome ineptness at the top for damn sure.

    One of the reasons the military works so well is that those at the top HAD to start at the bottom and work their way up. No one went from Ensign to Admiral overnight that I know of. And if that Admiral is worth his or her salt and some poltical appointee tries to force him to do something not in keeping with the needs of the service you can usually watch the sparks fly.

    Now Rickover was the opposite in his source of support. He flew a lot of sparks and politicians backed HIM up. But that is the exception rather than the rule. Any President that really tries to ignore the JCOS has a real problem on his hand, right. Just look at all the hoops Obama jumped through to get Petraeus and McMullen on board in Afghanistan. Left to his own devices just imagine the secret orders he may have written on his own.

    We have neglected leadership within the ranks of Civil Servants for a long, long time to the countries detriment. But it can be reclaimed over time. And the TSA would be a great place to start the process.

    Consider taking a Marine General with all the combat and training experience possible. Put him at the head of TSA then sit back and watch. It would not be too long before any jerk worried about his “junk” would be braced up with spit flying in his face from a master sargent type civil servant. And God help the lawyer that got in the way.

    Sure I’m dreaming, but hell, it is a worthy goal, is it not. And there are a lot of good men and women that know how to reach that goal if the politicians back them up (like they did Rickover)



    • Jim Wheeler says:

      OK. Go get ’em, DQ! 🙄

      There’s nothing I would like to see more than trying what you suggest.

      Step #1: Find a Marine General insane enough to take the job. (Inspector Clouseau, alas, is not available.)


      • I think I agree with Anson.

        If I understand correctly, he’s saying that if civil service as it stands will never produce work force capable of catching real hijackers, the civil service needs to change.

        Your alternative is profiling. I wouldn’t rule it out, but we should be cautious. Also, will profiling alone be enough? I think that terrorists in the US are likely a more unlikely possibility than in Israel, especially with the number of flights we have to police. At that rate won’t the profilers have the same issue. That is the likelihood that even that near eastern looking young man is really a terrorist is very small, and as such won’t the profilers get careless?

        So it seems like if civil service doesn’t provide the TSA protection we need, then we need to make it more professional. What if it were an arm of the say the Coast Guard, or maybe the FBI? We’d likely spend a lot more money, but clearly what we’re afraid of while unlikely has high consequences when it happens, such as 9/11. One can image much worse too.

        Does anyone know a crazy Marine General?


        • Jim Wheeler says:

          The crazy thing is, Bruce, my INSTINCTS about this are just like Anson’s. Because the US Navy turned me into a military man from my hair to my toenails, I am used to the idea that I can “get someone’s attention” by boring down to their inner self and getting into their ego. Reminds me of the current GEICO commercial on TV where a tough-guy psychologist is listening to a sob story from a man on his couch feeling sorry for himself. Then the doc says, “You know who I feel sorry for? YOU, YOU BLOCKHEAD! MAYBE YOU NEED TO GO TO NAMBYPAMBY LAND AND GET SOME MORE SYMPATHY! MORON!” Or words to that effect. The Drill Sergeant approach, you know? Unfortunately I know from hard personal experience that this only works if the subject of the discipline actually cares about what you can do to him or his career. If they don’t, what you get is a mild, cow-eyed stare that says, “I see you there, but soon you’ll be gone and I’ll still be here.”

          😦 Jim


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