The TSA Outdoes Itself, Twice

A broken plane can't fly, so it's safe.

Every time we think that the TSA can't get any sillier or any less effective, they surprise us.  In an article "Airlines may face fines over mistaken terrorist IDs," USA Today reports:

The Transportation Security Administration is threatening to fine airlines up to $25,000 when they erroneously tell passengers they are on a terrorist watch list.

TSA officials, frustrated that carriers have not taken steps to eliminate the hassle that occurs when a passenger has a name similar to someone on a terrorist watch list, plan to meet with airlines this week to "make sure they aren't alarming people and telling them they're on a watch list when they aren't," said agency spokeswoman Ellen Howe. [emphasis added]

This is amazing.  The TSA is "frustrated that carriers have not taken steps to eliminate the hassle..."

To be honest about it, we're extremely frustrated with the TSA and with all its doings, but we don't think that fining airlines for mixing up names on the TSA's terrorist list will have a beneficial effect.

Threatening airlines isn't unique to the TSA.  The Chinese government is threatening to fine airlines whose passengers misbehave, but unlike the TSA which wants to fine airlines for problems that are clearly the fault of the TSA, the Chinese government threatens fines only when passengers riot in response to incidents which are in fact the airline's fault:

"We will severely punish airlines which experience aircraft occupations and other incidents as a result of service reasons which originate with the airline," Yang told a news conference. [emphasis added]

USA Today went on to explain what's behind the TSA's threats:

Airlines compare passenger names to government watch lists before a flight. When airlines find an apparent match, passengers cannot print a boarding pass at home or at airport kiosks and must go to an airline check-in counter with ID to show they are not a suspected terrorist.  "People are inconvenienced by that every day," Howe said.

The TSA has urged airlines to keep records of passengers who've been cleared after being mistaken for terrorists so the mistakes won't happen again. [emphasis added]

The TSA spokesperson complains that "people are inconvenienced every day."  Truer words were never spoken, but most of the inconvenience is due to the fact that the TSA can't maintain its own list properly.  Asking airlines to maintain lists of people whose names are like names on TSA's ill-maintained terrorist list is utter nonsense.

Suppose a terrorist who's name is on the list has a name like the name of a person who's been checked out and cleared because his name is like the terrorist's name.  After all, if the passenger's name is like the terrorist's name, the terrorist's name is probably like the passenger's name, right?  (duh)

"We will not tolerate anyone saying to a member of the public that you're on a watch list," Hawley [the TSA chief] told the House aviation subcommittee. "That undercuts the credibility of the system." [emphasis added]

"Credibility of the system."  Is he kidding?  How long did Senator Ted Kennedy languish on the terrorism watch list because his name was similar to the name of an Irish terrorist?

Does this argument about worrying how the public perceives their credibility remind you of the TSA wanting to get respect by having their people wear badges which look like police badges?  Kinda like sweeping dirt under the carpet: the rug may look better but the dirt's still there.  By this time, there's so much dirt under the TSA's rug that it's floating at waist level.

Now the TSA uber-boss tells Congress that when an airline tells a passenger he or she is on the TSA terrorist list, it "undercuts the credibility of the system."  He's right about that, assuming that the system ever had any credibility to begin with, but the solution is not to fine the airlines.

The solution is for the TSA to do a better job maintaining their list by making a "known good" list for people who aren't suspect.  The problem with doing that, of course, is they'd have to let "known good" people through without screening, which would eliminate a lot of jobs and budget, but never mind that...

Let's assume the airlines start maintaining lists of good people whose names are like terrorist names.  What happens when the terrorist shows up for his flight?  Having been threatened with fines for hassling passengers whose names are like names on TSA's list, a hassled check-in person notes that the terrorist's name is like the name of a person who's been cleared, and it's up, up and away!

What if the names are not merely similar, but identical?  How many people are named "John Smith" worldwide?  How can an airline tell people with identical names apart?  It's hard enough for cops and the FBI who are paid to do that.

Sorting this out is the TSA's responsibility, not an airline responsibility - airline staff have their hands full keeping track of your bags and trying to get them back after the TSA Neanderthals finish playing with them.

Maintaining terrorist lists is the sole responsibility of the TSA.  Foisting some of their responsibility off on the airlines under threat of fines is bureaucratic silliness at its most ludicrous.  Could it be that they actually want a hijacking so they can ask for more money next year?

If we simply must pick people for inspection based on something so silly, easily-changed, and easily-faked as their name, we could just tell the airlines to check anybody named "Mohammed" or some variant thereof.  How many times have we seen terrorists bearing this name?  And the overwhelming majority of people who aren't named "Mohammed" aren't hijackers.

But that would be politically incorrect, wouldn't it?  What's worse, profiling might work, and actually solving the problem is something no bureaucrat wants because solutions don't boost the budget.

On A Really Serious Note

Having the TSA admit they can't tell good travelers from bad is only to be expected; having the TSA make us into an international laughingstock while undermining national efforts to promote tourism is embarrassing; but at least the TSA baggage follies don't put anyone's life at risk.

Now we find that the TSA employees are routinely climbing around the outside of airplanes using various handy protrusions and protuberances that just happen to be sensitive instruments that the pilots need for flying the plane.  ABC News reports:

Nine American Eagle airplanes were grounded Tuesday after a TSA inspector, conducting an overnight security check, used sensitive instrument probes to climb onto the parked aircraft at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, aviation sources tell

A TSA official confirmed the incident.  At least forty regional commuter flights were delayed throughout the day, according to American Airlines.

"We think it's an unfortunate situation," American airlines spokesperson Mary Frances told

"Our inspector was following routine procedure for securing the aircraft that were on the tarmac," Montenegro [a TSA spokesperson] told [emphasis added]

Scragged would use a stronger word than "unfortunate" - "idiotic" or "moronic" come to mind - but given the immense grief that the TSA can inflict on any airline just by breaking their instruments, American Airlines has to be nice to these clowns.

Their spokesperson says it's routine for the TSA to damage aircraft instrumentation while clambering around on the planes like elementary kids on a jungle gym?  Like it's routine for the TSA to mix up names and to damage our luggage, stealing whatever they want?  And they're happy to admit it?  Wow.  At least they caught this problem before the planes took off this time.

The pilots were furious, saying that the TSA employees "are now doing things to our aircraft that may put our lives, and the lives of our passengers at risk."  You don't say.

And, as Mr. Montenegro stated, this is, indeed, "routine procedure" for the TSA.  One broken plane is an accident; nine broken planes is a policy.  Perhaps some bureaucrat has figured out that if the planes can't take off, they can't crash either, thus keeping us all safe?  One wonders how these people safely get out of bed in the morning.

Unfortunately, the TSA is now an established bureaucracy like the CIA.  No matter how useless they are, no matter how badly they mess up, their budget can only increase.

Pilots had better get used to checking for every possible device that can be broken, bent, or otherwise abused before they try to fly - that is, if they're fortunate enough not to share a name with a terrorist.  How much more of this will we tolerate?

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
So... why is it bad to ask people to show their ids before being allowed to board a plan? How does it discredit the policy for the passenger to have to confirm who they are?

To me it would depend on how the passenger was informed.

For example this would be bad:

"We have identified you as a terrorist listed on the terrorist watch list. You will have to prove that you are not a terrorist to board a flight."

This would be fine:

"Your name is similar to a name on the terrorist watch list. We ask that you bring a state issued picture id with you so that we can confirm that you are not the person on the watch list."

I'm sure someone could pretty it up a bit, but I certainly wouldn't be offended or bothered by the second.
August 22, 2008 8:44 PM
What possible good do the IDs do? Every last one of the 9-11 terrorists were asked for their ID, and produced them. They weren't even forged, they were genuine American drivers licenses. What, exactly, does that prove? Any sort of criminal can get a drivers license. Illegal immigrants can get them. Criminals bribe DMV workers all the time for false, but genuine and apparently valid, IDs. They're useless.
August 22, 2008 9:14 PM
Besides, you don't need an id to fly, anyway. If you claim to have forgotten it, you'll be let right through. Of course, the TSA being the TSA, if you refuse to show id instead of "forgetting" it, you will be denied access. Yet another piece of twisted TSA beauracracy.
August 23, 2008 9:48 PM
The NY Times seems to agree that the terrorism list is in bad shape:

That Troubled Terrorism List
The administration's first priority should be to to fix the terrorist watch list so that warning signs of an attack are not lost in the chaos again.

The article says:

"A half-billion-dollar emergency program to repair the nation's main and deeply flawed terrorist watch list is "on the brink of collapse," according to a Congressional investigation. That means that warning signs of a terrorist attack could again be lost in the chaos."

Some of the flaws discovered are mind-bogglingly basic. The Railhead database, it seems, also has fundamental problems with its search function. It failed, for example, to handle multiple word searches connected by "and" and "or," and it could not offer matches for slight misspellings of suspects' names.

"The program not only can't connect the dots," Representative Brad Miller, Democrat of North Carolina, declared. "It can't find the dots." Intelligence officials have not yet commented, but Mr. Miller's call for an investigation by the director of national intelligence's inspector general deserves immediate action.

Even the Times realizes that Government is incapable of carrying out computer infrastructure projects successfully.
August 24, 2008 9:29 PM
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