What’s behind the TSA’s new charm offensive?

Where would we be without the TSA?

Representatives of the $8.1 billion-a-year agency, which is charged with protecting America’s transportation systems, are stepping into the spotlight to ask that question.

Two of them caught my eye last week: an op-ed by a Federal Security Director in Florida and a “show-and-tell” event in Tennessee, that underscored the presumed value of this pricey federal initiative.

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And there’s more to come. John Pistole, the TSA’s administrator, is making a rare appearance at the Press Club in Washington early next month, and is almost certain to echo the same talking points. Even the TSA’s own blog is getting into the act, above and beyond its weekly inventory of weapons confiscations. But more on that in a second.

What’s TSA trying to tell us?

First, they want us to know that they’re working hard — really hard — to keep terrorists off your plane. And that it’s an “incredibly difficult and complex” mission (those are the words of Robert Cohen, the TSA federal security director at Florida International Airport).

Jon Allen, a TSA spokesman in Nashville, “proudly” showed off an entire table of dangerous items at the agency’s, “show and tell” last week. They included giant knives, a pepper spray dispenser, a 3-liter box of white wine, even fully-loaded handguns. Allen said the items were largely confiscated within the past five weeks.

Second, TSA wants us to think that we’re really better off with the controversial Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) body scanners, and that anyone who feels otherwise is a whiner or perhaps even a terrorist sympathizer.

“AIT safely screens passengers for both metallic and nonmetallic threats, including weapons and explosives concealed under clothing — and it does so without physical contact — to keep the traveling public safe,” declares Cohen in the op-ed, which appeared in the News-Press, a regional newspaper. “With the installation of the latest software, we are able to employ state-of-the art technology while taking privacy to the next level.”

The watchdog site TSA News Blog found numerous lies and misstatements in these two efforts, which it denounced as “propaganda.” Perhaps the most significant is Cohen’s claim that imaging technology reduces the need for pat-down searches. With a 54 percent “false positive” rate, it actually increases the number of physical searches.

And third, the agency PR operatives are pulling out all the stops to make us believe the $30 billion we’ve thrown at the TSA since its inception is money well spent.

This is by far the most difficult item to sell. The only real evidence of TSA’s success is the absence of another 9/11-like terrorism attack, but who’s to say the rent-a-cops they replaced wouldn’t have been able to stop another airborne hijacking, and at a significant savings to the American taxpayer? Or even whether another 9/11 was in the works?

TSA bureaucrats hope the answer to that question — “Where would we be without the TSA?” — is, “We don’t want to even think about it.”

But once you consider the actual evidence, it’s hard to respond the way TSA wants you to.

I mean, c’mon. I could spend $30 billion protecting the United States from an alien invasion. And if it didn’t happen, I could declare victory against the extraterrestrials. TSA is using the same logic here, more or less.

And white wine? What’s a terrorist going to do with a box of booze on a plane, except get really drunk and show the entire plane that he has extraordinarily bad taste in wine? Likewise, we have no evidence that the knives, the pepper spray and even the loaded guns would be used for anything related to terrorism. More likely, they were packed accidentally and would have been caught with a conventional magnetometer or X-ray machine, anyway.

When logic and the facts don’t line up with TSA’s talking points, well, you can always bring out the cute animals.

I’m not making this up. The TSA’s blog highlighted its screening procedures for cute baby otters last week. I will only quote a few lines so you don’t have to reach for your insulin pump.

Otters are used to frolicking around in the water and snacking on invertebrates and such, but when it comes to airline security, it’s safe to say that’s one area otters aren’t used to.

Anyhoo, these furry little Asian River Otter pups and their significant “otters” were quickly screened and on their way in no time.


This is a classic and desperate PR strategy. When the critics line up and shoot your rhetoric full of holes, just roll out the googly-eyed pups.

It’s an otter disaster. There’s nothing new or particularly innovative about the TSA’s misinformation campaign. It’s the same old rhetoric wrapped in recycled paper, and only the most gullible Americans are likely to buy it.

It may even have an unintended effect, over the long term. Instead of bothering to answer the question, “Where would we be without the TSA?” that we will, at some point in the near future, ask another question — one the TSA doesn’t want us to even think about.

Are we better off without the TSA?

(Photo: CM Fong/Flickr)