TSA Wastes Tax Money Studying Science Fiction

Fail in reality? Take refuge in fantasy!

Just when we think we couldn't possibly hear anything sillier from the TSA than what they've done before, they prove us wrong.  USA Today reports:

WASHINGTON - A $36 million anti-terrorism program designed to detect bombs on airline passengers by shooting air blasts to dislodge explosive particles is being scuttled because the machines proved unreliable at airports.

The "puffer" machines - glass portals that passengers enter for checkpoint screening - are being removed after the Transportation Security Administration spent $6.2 million on maintenance since 2005.  Removing them will cost nearly $1 million, TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne said.

TSA bought 207 of the machines starting in 2004 and installed 94 of them. The other 113 machines stayed in storage.  Now that the program is being canceled, those machines will never be used.

This deployment strategy is utterly idiotic.  Any new machine should be installed in a few places to see how it works before buying more.  There is no excuse for buying 207 machines without first making sure that they work in the airport environment, staring with no more than one or two, five at the most.

USA Today reports that the TSA is planning to repeat this fiasco with yet another technology:

As a replacement, the TSA is installing body scanners that create images of passengers through their clothing.  The TSA plans to have 250 scanners next year, costing $170,000 each, its 2010 budget shows.

Having wasted your and my money on puffers which will never be used, the TSA plans to buy 250 scanners without testing them first.  How many of them will languish forever accruing storage charges?  What idiocy!

The article also explains why the TSA wastes so much money:

Security consultant Rich Roth said the TSA faced pressure in 2004 to improve airport screening, and puffers were the best equipment available.  "We knew it didn't work 100%, but we still used it because it gave you an edge over terrorists," Roth said.

How could this machine give an edge over terrorists even if it worked 100%?  Don't they realize that terrorists who can afford to buy fake IDs can afford to take a shower, or maybe several showers, and buy new clothes before getting on a plane?  Haven't they heard that the guys who make the bombs and seal them into sniff-proof plastic bags, and thereby might have explosives residue on their clothes, aren't the same guys who deliver them?

Bomb-making is a useful skill; it's stupid to waste that talent in a suicide attack when there's plenty of less-talented zealots who can do that part just as well.  Why would they expect to find bomb residue on anyone?

Bureaucracies love being put under pressure to "do something," because that command means they can shovel out lots of money without having to worry about results.  The agency can go to Congress and brag, "We've bought 207 high-tech machines to detect explosives on passenger's clothing, please give us more money."

The agency knew the machines didn't work well, but they spent our money anyway.  No prizes for guessing how many relatives and former Senate and House staff work for the company that made the defunct puffers.

The article also pointed out that the Homeland Security Department, TSA's parent, was scrapping a $600 million camera system which had been placed along our southern border because it didn't work either.  Yet another boondoggle on the border, brought to you by those intrepid wastrels!  To boldly spend where no man has spent before!

TSA Segues into Fiction

Wasting our money on devices which, although they don't work well, actually exist in some form or other isn't enough; the TSA has wandered off into the realm of government-funded science fiction conventions.  In "U.S. Mission for Sci-Fi Writers: Imagine That," the Washington Post reports:

Onstage in the darkened amphitheater, a Washington police commander said he'd like to have Mr. Spock's instant access to information: At a disaster scene, he'd like to say, "Computer, what's the dosage on this medication?"

We'd like it if our hospital emergency room had one of those, of course, but why is the TSA spending taxpayer money fantasizing about gadgets which don't exist?  Does the TSA plan to fund development of exotic medical devices in competition with the FDA?

A federal research director fantasized about a cellphone that could simultaneously text and detect biochemical attacks.  Multiple cellphones in a crowd would confirm and track the spread.  The master of ceremonies for the week was Greg Bear, the sci-fi novelist whose book "Quantico" featured FBI agents battling a designer plague targeting specific ethnic groups. [emphasis added]

We taxpayers paid for Homeland Security staff, police officers, research management, and FBI agents to spend an entire week discussing science fiction at our expense.

The writers call this "science fiction in the national interest," and they consult pro bono.  They've been exploring the future, and "we owe it to mankind to come back and report what we've found," said writer Arlan Andrews, who also is an engineer with the Navy in Corpus Christi, Tex.

Yeah, right.  The TSA can't get existing technology to work.  What are they going to do with fantasy?

These meetings have been going on for some years, and, as the Post reports, "The department can't point to a gadget on the drawing board that was inspired by one of the novelists."

The whole TSA premise has been a fiction from the start.  Bad guys are still able to buy good IDs; how is checking IDs going to keep bad guys off airplanes?  For all the liquids confiscated at the airport, mothers are still allowed to bring on board bottles of formula - and that's exactly how the terrorists planned to smuggle their liquid explosives on in the first place.

Given that current TSA practice is fundamentally flawed from top to bottom, adding fiction to the mix on purpose is only fitting.

We just wish we didn't have to pay for the government to put on science fiction conventions at our expense.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
Hear, hear! The TSA adds insult to injury. Yet ANOTHER government department that should be torn to the ground and sold for parts.
June 16, 2009 8:47 AM
I'm not sure if this makes it better or worse, but there actually is technology out there to detect air quality that is small and light weight, the developers are trying to get it added to cell phones right now. I can't imagine getting it to detect bio-chemical hazards would be a huge step.

So while the TSA Fantasizes the private sector is making it happen. Go capitalism.
June 16, 2009 10:32 AM
This is fairly old news.

The Sci-Fi writers are there to help the TSA imagine before-hand what the next type of attack will be, so that they don't have to just react to attack methods which have been thwarted.

As your quote mentions, the writers are consulting on a pro-bono basis.

Also, the large quantities of "puffers" purchased by TSA was probably agreed in early development, so that the "private sector (which is) making it happen" could afford to research and develop them.
June 29, 2009 11:03 AM
The Post reported that NOT ONE project has come out of these taxpayer-sponsored Sci Fi conventions. Sci Fi doesn't work any better than anything else TSA does.
June 29, 2009 8:03 PM
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