TSA a Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone

self-licking-ice-cream-coneIn the thread discussing the idiotic new TSA guidelines issued in overreaction to the Detroit terror plot, longtime commenter DC Loser observes,

As a lifelong civil servant, anytime you create a large bureaucracy to deal with a specific problem, it is not in the interest of said bureaucracy for the root problem to go away. It always seeks to aggregate more power and funding so it in the end becomes a self licking ice cream cone. Prime examples are the DEA and TSA.

That’s exactly right.

The TSA doubtless employs some number of non-idiots and one presumes that most of its employees, regardless of IQ, genuinely wish to protect airline passengers from danger.  But the incentive structures are such that the terrorist threat will always be at least High.  First, because it makes it harder for Congress to deny funding.  If Congress says No and there’s a subsequent fatal attack, it’s politically catastrophic.  Second, there is virtually no downside to being wrong in overestimating the threat; there’s huge downside to being wrong the other way.

FILED UNDER: Bureaucracy, Politics 101, Terrorism, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. just me says:

    Well I think this is absolutely true. I really struggle to see how half the stuff the TSA does actually protects anyone from a potential terrorist hijacker.

  2. Mr Evilwrench says:

    They’re just getting us used to the idea of being searched, inconvenienced, and watched where-ever we go. Getting us softened up for the police state. It looks like this is spreading to rail, even local systems. They’ll be tracking our movements. To protect us? No, to protect themselves.

  3. Our Paul says:

    Soon the glorious day will come when we all have to board a plane stark naked. Which will work until smart ass terrorist figures out the last great hiding place.

  4. Pete says:

    As a lifelong civil servant, anytime you create a large bureaucracy to deal with a specific problem, it is not in the interest of said bureaucracy for the root problem to go away. It always seeks to aggregate more power and funding so it in the end becomes a self licking ice cream cone.

    Welcome to government run health care.

  5. The new guidelines worked perfectly; everyone is so busy arguing about pillows that there’s no one questioning how someone with known terrorist connections managed to get a bomb onto a plane without being challenged.

  6. Michael says:

    The new guidelines worked perfectly; everyone is so busy arguing about pillows that there’s no one questioning how someone with known terrorist connections managed to get a bomb onto a plane without being challenged.

    He didn’t have known terrorist connections when he boarded the plane, that was part of the problem.

    Al Qaeda knew what type of person they needed to get past airport security, and now that these new regulations are in place, they still know what kind of person they need to get past airport security.

    It’s time that we admit the impossibility of keeping terrorists off planes indefinitely, and instead spend our time and money figuring out ways to make getting a terrorist on a plane less effective.

  7. sam says:

    I’m gonna put this here, ’cause it’s the most recent thread on The Man Who Blew His Own Nuts Off and Caused the Collapse of Western Civilization (via John Cole from Nate Silver):

    Over the past decade, there have been, by my count, six attempted terrorist incidents on board a commercial airliner than landed in or departed from the United States: the four planes that were hijacked on 9/11, the shoe bomber incident in December 2001, and the NWA flight 253 incident on Christmas…

    Over the past decade, according to BTS [the Bureau of Transportation Statistics], there have been 99,320,309 commercial airline departures that either originated or landed within the United States. Dividing by six, we get one terrorist incident per 16,553,385 departures.

    These departures flew a collective 69,415,786,000 miles. That means there has been one terrorist incident per 11,569,297,667 mles flown. This distance is equivalent to 1,459,664 trips around the diameter of the Earth, 24,218 round trips to the Moon, or two round trips to Neptune…

    There were a total of 674 passengers, not counting crew or the terrorists themselves, on the flights on which these incidents occurred. By contrast, there have been 7,015,630,000 passenger enplanements over the past decade. Therefore, the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

  8. inhumans99 says:

    Nothing of value to add to this thread…I just want to note that the image of the self-licking ice-cream cone cracks me up!

  9. Drew says:

    sam –

    Those type of statistics are backward looking, and fail to take into consideration a new terrorist MO. The same statistics could have been cited about working in the WTC before 9/11.

    In another thread Dave Schuler observed that this may have been a way of probing in preparation for perfecting the attack, or for a larger attack.

    Your words will ring hollow if that comes to pass.

  10. DC Loser says:

    In another thread Dave Schuler observed that this may have been a way of probing in preparation for perfecting the attack, or for a larger attack.

    Your words will ring hollow if that comes to pass.

    And SO WHAT?

    This is exactly the kind of political gotcha attitude that gives the likes the TSA carte blanche to do as they please and the public is supposed to cower like sheep to all these new edicts. When are we just going to own up to the facts and try to live our lives as normally as possible. I don’t see people stop driving because the chances of dying in a car crash a so much greater than in an terrorist incident.

  11. Those type of statistics are backward looking

    Are any statistics anything else?

    Yes, the future is just like the past up and until the point that it isn’t, but it is actually more likely that the number of attempts that we have seen since 9/11 is telling us that AQ has less capabilities than we thought was the case on 9/12.

    Indeed, projecting worst case scenarios into the future from one event is what got us two near-decade-long wars amongst other joys like the TSA.

  12. Franklin says:

    Exactly right, Mr. Taylor.

    Plus I am also waiting for some future-looking statistics, LOL.

  13. sleze says:

    The problem is that we already have taken the steps to insure that 9/11 will never happen again – re-enforced cockpit doors. The rest is just Security Theater – a song and dance that makes it appear they are doing stuff to make us safer.

    All these overreactions are really like an auto-immune disease where the reaction is generally worse than the potential problems.

  14. Drew says:

    C’mon, Steven –

    How’s this: “Citing those type of statistics demonstrates a backward looking philosophical approach…” Feel better now?

    The point remains. After 9/11 there was so much discussion of the failure “to connect the dots.” For failure to think outside the box. We were also treated to an endless stream of experts who warned that al-Qaeda was patient and would eventually be back. Well, here we are. And people want to make light of it.

    It seems to me the only relevant questions are: 1) is this explosive detectable by currently installed screening devices, 2) are the amounts required to bring down aircraft disguisable in peoples clothing, 3) is there a viable fuse?

    If the answer to #1 is “no” and to 2, 3 “yes” then we have a major problem. al-Qaeda surely has the means to procure the explosive material and fuse, buy airplane tickets, call me crazy but I suspect they can find a seamstress, and there will be no shortage of volunteers. The sheer scope of what could transpire should make one pause.

    al-Qaeda may be compromised in that we have been keeping them busy abroad, but this is so much more simple than hijacking and flying airplanes into buidings it sends chills…….

  15. Ika says:

    Didn’t this guy board in Amsterdam or Nigeria? Beefing up security in US airports would do NOTHING to stop this.

  16. Michael says:

    Ika, I believe these rules are in effect for international carriers with flights to the US also.

  17. Ray says:

    The TSA efforts ARE mostly “security theater”. A quick look at the restrictions into DCA … no aircraft other than airlines and specially pre-screened corporate aircraft can use National Airport … no light aircraft at all. BUT all aircraft types are allowed to fly over DCA (and all of DC) at altitude (I don’t know what the common altitudes are anymore approaching Dulles for instance from the east). If a terrorist wanted to use a private jet aircraft to attack the Capitol or the White House, they would plan the flight into Dulles from the east then roll the airplane upside down and dive straight down. From 10,000 feet and at 250 knots it will take about 20 seconds to impact once the straight down descent was started. Does anyone think that the terrorists have not considered this, or that the FAA and the TSA know that it is impossible to react and stop this in 20 seconds?

    So why restrict traffic in and out of DCA? It’s stupid and ludicrous. It IS simply “security theater”.