It’s Kip Hawley week here at Taking Sense Away, apparently.
Most of this blog’s readers cross over to the TSA News Blog (the TSA News Blog was the first publication to link to this site, thanks to Lisa Simeone stumbling upon the Insider’s TSA Dictionary) and have already seen this, anyway, but for those who haven’t, it’s some good TSA panel action, with Kip Hawley, Lisa Simeone, and Khaliah Bharnes of the Electronic Information Privacy Center, discussing the TSA’s VIPR teams.
For whatever reason, Hawley can’t find it within himself to admit that the VIPR teams are just as silly as all the other TSA security measures that he has been publicly criticizing since he began promoting Permanent Emergency. The VIPR teams (traveling security theater units that deal with trains and public events, on top of airports, see the Insider’s TSA Dictionary) are enormous wastes of money, and have been discounted by various cost/benefit analysts. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’ve already written about how silly the VIPR teams are on this blog, at least once.
In short, some of the best independent risk-assessment experts to have taken on airport security (such as Mark G. Stewart) have put forth a very good case that some measure of security theater may be worth society’s trouble in airports, given the bottle-neck nature of an airport’s traffic flow, and the somewhat unique risk scenario that airplanes present. This is due to the fact that, because a plane’s cabin is pressurized, and that it travels 30,000 feet in the sky, a quantity of explosives that would only kill a couple people on the ground can take out 300 people on an airborne plane, and in uniquely spectacular fashion. Add to this the anxiety that people generally feel when embarking on a trip that will involve soaring thousands of feet in the sky, and it may be that a slight measure of security theater is justifiable at airports, in terms of the collective psyche. The key word there is slight.
However, when looking at the trains or large public gatherings that the VIPR teams proclaim to protect, we see very few of the factors that make even that slight measure of security theater worthwhile at airports. There are only 500 or so airports in the U.S. that deal with large commercial airlines, making it possible for a somewhat consistent security presence to be stationed at every one of those hubs. But how many train and subway stations are there? How many bus stations? How many crowded public areas? It would be impossible to project even the image of control over all possible points of entry for all possible public areas, as the VIPR teams are essentially trying to do, short of a full lockdown on the populace. Better to let people keep the tax dollars and spare them the further compromise of civil liberties, and just leave trains and public gatherings to the local law enforcement entities and emergency responders who inevitably end up handling the unpredictable, one-in-a-billion terrorist crime by themselves, anyway, alongside the millions of other daily crimes and accidents that are actually worth worrying about.
The reason that this VIPR thing suddenly flared up in the news again is because the New York Times ran a story on it, and the New York Times is numero uno in the news food chain; if the Grey Lady deigns to touch upon a topic, then we all have to go over it again, one more time.
For me, the highlight of the panel is at 20: 54, when Kip Hawley claims that the TSA’s VIPR program is useful, and that the “TSA is respected within the intelligence community for its VIPR program.” Lisa laughs at this point–one of several points of the panel discussion in which she laughs at Hawley– and Kip definitely deserves it. Again, I knew a few people who went from TSA to the FBI, and who told me, after they showed up back at my airport’s exit lane with FBI credentials– necessitating the usual CSS call over the radio to escort them through– that once they went from the TSA to the FBI they tried to do their best to hide their former employee from their new FBI friends, due to the fact that they’d be mercilessly taunted for being former TSA. The TSA is the least respected branch of the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Homeland Security itself is one of the many agencies (save for the FBI and CIA) that has to go whining and groveling at the NSA’s feet for access to information, as this New York Times article from Sunday revealed. The VIPR teams being “highly respected by the intelligence community” is, indeed, laughable.