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US juggles the politics of aviation security

17-May-2011

The funding and direction of the US Transportation Security Agency (TSA) is once again under discussion in Washington. The most recent development involves Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee who have removed funding for additional body scanners and personnel to operate them.

The Obama administration’s budget requested USD8.1 billion for fiscal 2012, but the Republican drive to cut expenditure has made that level of funding unlikely.

While there are already about 500 machines deployed and cash on hand to fund others, the lack of funds could limit the full implementation of scanners as originally envisioned. Those wishing to withhold additional funding claim the public uproar over the “intrusive” nature of the scans is not the issue, but rather it is all about the money involved.

Yet among the general public there remains the doubt that the images produced are actually as unrevealing and secure as the TSA has insisted and there is ongoing uncertainty as to the radiation levels involved in the scans.

Poor past investment

The question is also clouded by the fact that the previous machines deployed, the “puffers” that were designed to detect trace elements in an enclosed environment were abandoned because they were fragile and expensive to maintain. Considerable expense for that technology appears to have been written off with no guarantee that the scanners might also be short-lived.

But, of course, those politicians whose districts derive jobs and income from the construction of the machines are opposed to any reduction in the number to be deployed.

Still in the spotlight

Meanwhile, the issue of pat-downs, especially those involving children and people with disabilities or special circumstances, continues to make headlines.

And just to make things even more complex, a number of states are considering measures that would restrict the nature of searches in their airports, with local politicians concerned about the breaches of privacy that have been reported. Any such action, however, would be only symbolic as federal law supercedes any state mandate in this case.

However, it does indicate widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Need for cost/benefit analysis

One discussion that has not come up is that of a complete overhaul and cost/benefit analysis of the approach to security, which many observers believe to be relatively ineffective despite the expense and human resources involved in the process. One Congressional critic derides the entire effort as being less effective than “a good ole German Shepherd”.

The debate over money and funding will doubtless continue but any review of the effectiveness or efficacy of the programme seems unlikely.

Until regulators and the Congress are willing to really assess the programme’s value and seek alternative methods of detection, the money will continue to flow.


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