They're at it Again

Seldom when the federal government speaks do I believe what I hear. Officials brought this distrust upon themselves through years of pulling our collective leg on issues that affect the American public, or when they’ve failed to issue information that concerns us, the citizenry.

For once, though, the Transportation Security Administration is being true to its promise: TSA is deploying backscatter X-ray systems to screen airplane passengers as though they were naked. When fliers object to the low-dose radiation search, they are effectively opting for a physical pat-down.

I’ve had one of those infamous pat-downs, and it’s more like a grizzly bear searching for a pot of honey than a security agent looking for contraband. It was a very physical search.

Realize, however, that TSA probably got caught with its pants down, again, and now it has to prove it takes security seriously. It’s been in this position before, and I’m sure it’s not comfortable.

“Following the thwarted terrorist plot last week, to conceal and ship explosive devices on board aircraft bound for the United States, the administration took a number of immediate steps to increase security by tightening existing measures related to cargo bound for the United States,” read a Nov. 8 statement from Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

I’m all about security, and I appreciate that airplanes are pretty secure these days. But cartoonists have rightly had their fun with TSA because let’s face it: After Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane with his shoes, we all had to take off our shoes for examination.

Then came the Detroit-bound underwear bomber, and now we are being screened through lowdose X-ray machines as though we weren’t wearing any underwear. Before you know it, a full strip-search might be required. Terrorists continue to innovate and adapt, and who knows what they will think of next?

I wonder if TSA ever catches any terrorists.

It’s really hard to say. TSA will not provide any comprehensive data covering the nine years of its existence, though it does share some success stories. For instance, several years ago at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, it would seem that then Dallas Cowboys head coach Barry Switzer “forgot” about a handgun in his carry-on luggage. Yes, that made all the papers, radio and TV news programs. He probably is not a terrorist, but carrying a gun onboard an airplane, no matter who you are, just isn’t right. TSA also implemented a behavioral detection program known as SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observational Techniques). This initiative has been soundly criticized, and in May 2010, the Government Accountability Office released a report saying that despite the more than $200 million annual price tag, not a single apprehension had occurred. Another GAO report stated that 16 people later accused of terrorist involvement and plots had flown 23 different times through U.S. airports since 2004, but TSA failed to pick up a single one.

Up to this point, Americans have gone along with everything: the shoes, coats and belt buckles. Yes, there have been annoyances and inconveniences, but people have not taken them as a personal affront. The difference now is the public viewing of images of passengers’ naked bodies.

Meanwhile, the government also finds itself in yet another insecure mess as WikiLeaks has outed more than 250,000 classified diplomatic cables from the State Department. Kind of makes me wonder who’s minding the store while the leadership, such as it is, is out gallivanting about the globe. The Obama administration is in full damage-control mode. The White House has condemned the release by WikiLeaks, saying U.S. informants abroad could be endangered.

This unauthorized release of information squarely lies on the shoulders of the administration, and it would seem to me that the Obama White House can’t be trusted with state secrets, or more importantly, with securing them.

The leaks have proven rather embarrassing to the White House, as some communiqués provide candid and, at times, critical views of foreign leaders, as well as sensitive information filed by U.S. diplomats on terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

Federal agencies now have been told to establish security assessment teams to ensure that employees do not have broader than necessary access to classified information. I would have thought this surely would have been in place before now.

Among the leaked cables, according to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, are reports of calls from said officials in Jordan and Bahrain, calling for Iran’s nuclear program to be stopped by any means, and of leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt referring to Iran “as ‘evil,’ an ‘existential threat’ and a power that ‘is going to take us to war.’”

“The catastrophic issue here is just a breakdown in trust,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

“Many other countries -- allies and foes alike -- are likely to ask, ‘Can the United States be trusted? Can the United States keep a secret?’”

I think it’s time to strip-search the administration and do a thorough security screening.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue of Security Today.

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