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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Do We Need the “Next Level” of State Security?

Intrusion is a better word.

When a university hires a football coach, the athletic director often declares that the new coach will take the team to “the next level.” What the director means is that he hopes the coach will lead State U’s team to a championship or a high-ranking bowl.

However, when Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole told USA Today he wanted to bring the TSA to “the next level,” he didn’t mean better service. No, Pistole meant something more sinister: He wants the TSA to be so completely ingrained in American life that weary people simply put up with it. According to USA Today:

Pistole said he wants TSA workers, including 47,000 screeners at 450 airports, to operate as a “national-security, counterterrorism organization, fully integrated into U.S. government efforts.”

After the University of Alabama hired Nick Saban in 2006, he did take the Crimson Tide to the next level, the 2009 national championship. However, the next level for the TSA hardly is desirable, for Pistole is demanding that his organization become not unlike the infamous Stasi in the former East Germany.

For now, TSA agents work mostly at airports, although Pistole wants to expand TSA coverage to bus and train stations, so that nearly all future public transportation riders will come in contact with TSA inspectors.

Why? Pistole and his supporters reply that the TSA presence makes us safer than we were before Congress created the agency. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman agrees:

Does anyone remember the fight over federalizing airport security? Even after 9/11, the administration and conservative members of Congress tried to keep airport security in the hands of private companies. They were more worried about adding federal employees than about closing a deadly hole in national security.

(Interestingly, Krugman never blamed the FBI for apparently ignoring clues to the 9/11 plot. According to him, everything that happened that day was the result of private “market failures.” The 9/11 disaster, he wrote, was “partly-self inflicted” because of the lack of something like the TSA.)

Krugman (and Pistole, for that matter) would claim that any comparison of the TSA to the Stasi is illegitimate, even paranoid. Yet what did the Stasi do? It collected information about individuals who “threatened” East Germany’s regime. After the Berlin Wall fell and the Stasi files became public, it became clear that most people subjected to spying were no threat to the regime or anyone else.

No Threat

Likewise, we often find that people who have run-ins with the TSA at airports are not terrorists and pose no threat to anyone. We see the TSA forcing a four-year-old boy with leg braces to try to walk without them, along with dozens of other horror stories of federal screeners harassing passengers.

We also know – and the TSA even admits – that its agents have not actively prevented one act of terrorism, yet the agency continues to treat all airline passengers as potential terrorists. Furthermore, the TSA’s so-called No Fly List (which the agency claims “keeps known terrorists off planes”) is notorious for its “false positives,” which have kept people such as the late Sen. Ted Kennedy from flying.

Like the Stasi, the TSA exists primarily to intimidate people, namely, airline passengers (and, soon, passengers of trains, subways, and buses). The Department of Homeland Security, the TSA’s parent organization, actively encourages Americans to spy on one another (and provide “terror tips”).

Where does this lead? As East Germans found out, the Stasi did not keep them safe; it kept them cowed. Likewise, while the TSA is semi-efficient at humiliating handicapped children and women with prosthetic breasts, one doubts it can stop a determined group of people willing to sacrifice their lives to bring down a plane.

We do know that the longer the TSA exists the more likely it (along with other government “security” agencies) will engage in abusive spying on innocent Americans. The worst threats to our liberties don’t live in Pakistan or Afghanistan; they reside in Washington and wear U.S. government-issued uniforms.

  • Dr. William Anderson is Professor of Economics at Frostburg State University. He holds a Ph.D in Economics from Auburn University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.