Michael Tabman

Knives and TSA: The Specious Argument

In Crime and Security on March 18, 2013 at 8:03 am


            Once again, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) left a nation questioning their thought processes when they announced that certain knives will be allowed on planes.  The question most of us asked was, “why?”  We have learned to endure long lines and personal molestation.  So, why do we need this small concession, which according to flight attendants, air marshals and airlines only adds potential danger?

When this was announced, and TSA “double-downed” despite wide-spread and bi-partisan opposition, my mind flashed back to August 2001. It is a story I relate in my first book, Walking the Corporate Beat: Police School for Business People and in many corporate presentations.

Flying out of a United States airport as on duty FBI Agent, I remained armed and went through a specific process prior to boarding.  Anybody paying attention would have notice that process and realized that I was an armed agent, trying not to be noticed as an armed agent.  I was discussing security with a screener. I mentioned that my office recently released a law enforcement bulletin warning that certain writing pens were being constructed as small caliber guns.  The screener yelled that fact over to the screener at the other end of the gate.  His response, “So what does he expect me to do, check all pens?”  At that moment, I realized we had a significant problem with airline security.  While I did not predict an event on the magnitude of 9/11, on that day I did think back to this exchange.

According to TSA, “…searching for these items, which will not blow up an aircraft, can distract our officers from focusing on the components of an improvised explosive device.”  That is a specious argument.  Knives being introduced onto a plane still need to be checked to assure that they are, in fact, knives, not something more nefarious.  Then, TSA must confirm that these knives fall within the criteria of what is allowed on a plane.  I agree a knife alone will not bring a plane down.  But knives in cramped quarters where disruptions and confrontations are dangerous enough, seems unnecessary.  Though TSA agents are not law enforcement officers, this argument is analogous to saying that cops on the street should not enforce traffic violations, as it distracts them from more serious crimes.  They must, and can multi-task.

At first blush, having one less item to worry about at the airline gate, sounds like a positive step forward.  However, increasing convenience does not enhance security.

TSA’s pre-check program was a welcome initiative, allowing select people to breeze through the airport with less screening.  Does that enhance security?  We have often discussed the threat of the “sleeper cell” – terrorists who quietly blend into our society and become trusted citizens so they could “fly under the radar.”   The threat is obvious.

TSA did succeed in a way that has eluded almost everyone in DC – they created bi-partisan cooperation in resisting this policy.


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