Other Voices

National security apparatus invasive but not so effective

A TSA officer signals an airline passenger forward at a security checkpoint at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
A TSA officer signals an airline passenger forward at a security checkpoint at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. AP

You will be relieved to learn that conscientious female Transportation Security Administration agents just confiscated a gift set of perfume meant for my mother because it was just over three ounces. Barely.

But don’t relax. An undercover investigation found 95 percent of 70 attempts to smuggle banned weapons or mock explosives aboard planes were undetected by TSA agents at dozens of U.S. airports.

I know. You’re thinking you couldn’t even get away with keeping your belt on and got a TSA tongue lashing for not pulling out your laptop.

The new tests on TSA were conducted by Homeland Security, first reported by ABC News, which said agents failed 67 out of 70 tests.

TSA, with an $11 billion annual budget, is in trouble more than not. For years, investigators have been getting through security with fake bombs or weapons taped to their bodies or in carry-on luggage.

In September, a review of checked baggage procedures found “vulnerabilities” caused by human error and technological failures.

That report concluded that TSA spent $540 million since 2009 for screening equipment and $11 million on training, yet failed to make noticeable improvements.

In addition to failures documented in official government reports, some rogue computer security guy recently hacked into a plane’s entertainment system to show he could take control of navigation.

The new head of the FBI’s Cincinnati division, Angela Byers, said she was surprised at the high level of threat in Ohio.

“It’s scary. I’m not sure the general public gets the gravity of it,” she told The Associated Press.

Nationally, we’re in the midst of a troubling review of security, searching for balance between keeping America safe and not destroying our civil liberties.

The courts have ruled the government has been illegally spying on its citizens. Thus, Congress just passed the USA Freedom Act, signed by President Obama, which provides a little more government transparency and leaves private phone data in the hands of 1,400 private telephone companies unless a special court grants warrants or permission to wiretap.

But we’re talking a lot of loopholes here.

The AP also reported the FBI has been conducting up to 2,000 secret flights a year over U.S. cities with cameras and cellphone listening equipment. Sounds like secret surveillance to me. The FBI says it’s legal.

The Senate, in turmoil, has been debating the merits of the Patriot Act, a series of restrictions on Americans passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A majority of senators say the Patriot Act went too far in eroding civil liberties and hasn’t worked all that well to stop terrorists, such as the Boston Marathon bombers, who were on the radar.

On the other hand, hawks, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who opposed the current Freedom Act, think the nation is too lax in collecting data. They want this to be an issue in next year’s presidential election.

One hawk, Sen Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is so horrified by the state of national security he is basing his presidential campaign on the “entire world exploding in terror and violence.”

His announcement speech was extremely depressing, made even more inexplicable by his campaign song, James Brown’s I Feel Good. Graham wants to go back into Iraq, for starters, which would not make most of us feel good.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is basing his presidential campaign on stopping all surveillance, having employed his parliamentary tricks in vain.

It’s confusing. We are safer than on 9-11; we’ll never be really safe.

A few things are clear. The government ineptly will keep spying on us. The fight to maintain our liberties will never be over. Don’t take gift perfume on a plane even if a salesperson says it’s OK.

Ann McFeatters is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. amcfeatters@nationalpress.com