Richard Epstein on the TSA

Better to Profile Than to Pat Down

On December 4, 2010, John Pistole, the new head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), gave an extensive interview to Matthew Kaminski of the Wall Street Journal. The interview took place at an "[u]ndisclosed location near Washington," from which Pistole has doubtless departed. But if his whereabouts are a great mystery, as befits a man who is knee-deep in security matters, his policy directions are plain to see. They compromise a mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly. The question is how to disentangle the parts.

The best news comes from his clear recognition that technological improvements can go a long way to reduce the inevitable conflicts between liberty and security. To no one’s surprise, these tensions have become more intense with the TSA’s decision to give all airline passengers the unappetizing choice between intrusive full-body screening machines and offensive personal pat-downs.

The bad news is that though Pistole speaks favorably of this much-needed technology, acquiring that technology in the immediate future seems unlikely, For instance, Pistole refers to a "blob" technology, currently in place in Amsterdam, which can pick out foreign objects on a person without giving detailed images of everyone’s private parts to the body scanners. The obvious question is why that technology is not also in place in the United States, or at least in certain airports, like Detroit’s, that seem to pose the highest risk for hostile action. In a nation that spends billions of dollars on misguided stimulus programs, here is one needed public expenditure that should rise to the top of the list.

Budgeting for much needed technology will not grow any likelier if Pistole implements the truly ugly: the unionization of 55,000 TSA employees, which may be just around the corner. To be sure, our misguided head of TSA utters soothing words in the Wall Street Journal: recognition of unions will come only with certain conditions. Most importantly, he says, the unions will not be able to strike, nor will they be allowed to engage in any activities with an adverse impact on security.

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