On the morning of 911, I watched as two commercial planes crashed into the Twin Towers. Just after a report of a third plane hitting the Pentagon, my phone rang. The voice on the line from Philadelphia public radio wanted to know what I thought was going on. “The common denominator,” I said, “is that airport security has been compromised. Somebody obviously read Congressional testimony on the problems with US airport security.”
I raise this now because the recent criticism of TSA security measures has brought the first post 911 howls of protest from rightwing pundits and politicians about privacy rights being violated in the War on Terror. Given their outrage about being full-body X-rayed and ‘groped,’ one can only wonder why they staunchly supported the Patriot Act with its wholesale eradication of privacy rights.
But I digress. As the TSA controversy has unfolded and their suggestions for ‘fixing’ the problem at US airports become known, it is clear that for America’s rightwing the real problem is not ‘groping’ or X-ray machines, it is who is doing the groping and operating the machines.
The problem is BIG GOVERNMENT (and unions) in the form of the TSA employees. The solution, they offer, is two fold: privatize airport security: i.e. put the commercial airlines in charge of the screening process. Secondly, adopt the ‘Israeli model’ of airport security. This proposal is contrary to the right wing’s privatization idea since at Israel’s one major airport, (Ben Gurion) security is provided by government officials (police and IDF security agents) and the screening process is intrusive, time consuming, and depends on racial, gender, class and ethnic profiling, about which the Israelis are unapologetic.
On the privatization front, one can understand from an ideological standpoint why these ‘free market’ advocates would suggest the airlines take over airport security. From a security angle, well, history has something to teach us.
On 911, I was able to point the radio audience to lapses in airport security because of my post Pan Am 103 research on the dual system of airport management (FAA and airline partnership) in which airlines had screening responsibility. Among the things I found, most of it from Congressional testimony in the 1980s and early 1990s, is what follows.
The airlines provided security agents by hiring private non-union sub-contractor ‘security’ firms. The result: employee training consisted mostly of one short film, pay was minimum wage, no benefits, no paid vacation and in most cases employees had to purchase their own uniform. Employee annual turnover rate was 100%. The slightest whiff of a union effort among employees meant the airline fired the ‘tainted’ private sub-contracted security firm and hired another. At some airports, (JFK for example) after Pan Am 103, dogs, allegedly trained in explosive detection, turned out to be from the local dog pound and couldn’t sniff out explosives at all (well, maybe, if wrapped in bacon). The cost to travelers for this airline marketing ploy: a $5 ‘security charge’ per ticket. More disturbing, when the FAA tested screener effectiveness at category X airports (largest and busiest airports such as New York’s LaGuardia and JFK, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco) tests showed a range of 35-80% failure rates, even when screeners knew they were being tested. (Congressional testimony)
What is clear from the above details is that private airlines, like TSA government authorities, not only have to be concerned with balancing civil liberties and public safety, but they have the added dimension of profitability. Thus the pressure to cut costs, raising the likelihood that either security or civil liberties or both would be sacrificed on the altar of private profit.
It was this privatized system that was in place on 911. How did that work for us? Not well obviously. On the other hand, as former Vice President Dick Cheney keeps reminding us, since 911 (or when the TSA took over airport security) there have been no successful attacks.
Beau Grosscup is a Professor Department of Political Science, CSU Chico, and author of The Latest Explosions of Terrorism (New Horizon Press, 2002) and Strategic Terror: politics and ethics of aerial bombardment, (Zed Books, 2006)