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Opponents of TSA Penknives Rule Win, Aviation Security Loses

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Earlier this year, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced it would remove penknives and some sporting equipment from the banned items list for airport checkpoints. Almost immediately, there was widespread outcry against what some saw as an irresponsible decision. Despite mountains of risk-based logic, TSA was unable to stem the tide of public dissent. Rather than stick to what was a sound counterterrorism decision, they caved, and penknives will remain on the banned item list.

For those who opposed the new rule, this may look like a victory, but it is in fact a failure for the country. Public fear has forced TSA to stick with a policy that does not make flying safer, and in some ways, it is a victory for the terrorists targeting the U.S. aviation system.

It’s clear we remain slaves to the uncertainty brought on by 9/11. Flying today brings with it an extreme paranoia, a fear that every passenger is eagerly looking for opportunities to hurt people on airplanes. That fear (evidently) is guiding our security policy, which is a victory for terrorists. Checkpoint screeners spend time looking for arguably harmless knives while the bad guys dream up ingenious ways to sneak advanced explosives through the security system.

As I wrote previously, pen knives are insufficient to launch a 9/11-style hijacking that would lead to a devastating crash. They could not penetrate the reinforced cockpit doors, which by FAA regulation, must now be locked before takeoff. They could not overwhelm the armed plain-clothes air marshals shepherding domestic and international flights. And while they are sharp and could potentially cut someone, they are hardly a lethal weapon that could cause mass casualties. What is more, penknives have never been used in a terrorist attack.

A TSA graphic explaining what types and sizes of penknives would have been allowed under the proposed rule change, now abandoned due to protests from various groups. TSA graphic

A TSA graphic explaining what types and sizes of penknives would have been allowed under the proposed rule change, now abandoned due to protests from various groups. TSA graphic

TSA planned to allow knives that are 2.36 inches or shorter and less than ½-inch wide. That is actually more restrictive than the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) regulations, which guide how the rest of the world screens for and prohibits sharp instruments. Every day, flights arrive from around the world with passengers carrying penknives bigger than what TSA was proposing to allow. This has been the case for years, and there has not yet been a single security incident because of it.

In short, keeping pen knives on the banned list does not improve security, does not keep all knives out of the sky and does not contribute to TSA’s overarching mission of preventing “catastrophic failure” of the kind seen on 9/11. Instead, it keeps checkpoint screeners from focusing more attention on looking for truly dangerous items, such as explosives. No matter how you cut it, backing down on the knife rule was a complete failure. Everyone involved shares in the blame.

  • Shame on the unions: The flight attendants union led the charge initially, protesting loudly that their safety was put in jeopardy by TSA’s relaxed banned item list. Maybe, but TSA was never focused on protecting flight attendants’ physical safety in the first place, nor have they ever been. That is not their job. TSA’s mandate is to secure U.S. transportation systems, and by consequence, the passengers. The other unions and businesses that piled on with the flight attendants are just as culpable.
  • Shame on Congress: Some Congressmen and women threatened to write legislation that would have prohibited TSA from removing knives from the banned items list. Yet, TSA’s mandate, which Congress wrote, charges the agency with ensuring terrorists cannot turn U.S. transportation systems into weapons of mass destruction. For the reasons listed above, focusing on penknives rather than explosives goes against TSA’s counterterrorism mission. If Congress is going to start amending TSA’s mandate according to individual items, we are in a world of trouble. Our elected officials are not security experts. That’s why our tax dollars pay for TSA.
  • Shame on TSA: True to form, TSA suffered at the hands of its own miserable public relations. Much of this outcry could have been avoided if TSA had engaged in more open discussion and explanation with the public. Aside from TSA Administrator John Pistole’s testimony in March before the House Homeland Security Committee, the public received virtually no education on why the banned item list was being amended. It is understandable that some of the flying public might wonder why they have to toss their water bottle before the checkpoint but could bring along a sharp instrument. With education, they might better understand that penknives are not going to bring down a plane, but clear liquid explosives might. TSA should also have acquired more advance buy-in from the stakeholders. The agency does not need approval from the airlines and others; it has the authority to make policy changes unilaterally. But look what happens when they go it alone and don’t secure broader agreement from the organizations and individuals involved. Good policies fail because of bad PR.

 

Chalk One Up for the Terrorists

Terrorism is a tactic, used to instill fear and chaos to achieve a political or ideological result. When terrorists are able to sow fear and chaos in a society, their tactic has succeeded. With TSA backing down on the knives rule, it looks like America’s enemies have reason to celebrate.

More than this, the national security debate remains hyper-focused on threats to aviation, while our rail system remains dangerously under protected, our infrastructure virtually unguarded, and our cyber networks open to thieves and evildoers. America is crippled by its fear of flying, which is exactly what Osama bin Laden and his cronies wanted when they planned 9/11.

It’s clear we remain slaves to the uncertainty brought on by 9/11. Flying today brings with it an extreme paranoia, a fear that every passenger is eagerly looking for opportunities to hurt people on airplanes. That fear (evidently) is guiding our security policy, which is a victory for terrorists. Checkpoint screeners spend time looking for arguably harmless knives while the bad guys dream up ingenious ways to sneak advanced explosives through the security system.

In looking for knives, we also slow down checkpoint throughput, which delays travel and commerce and incidentally creates large groupings of soft targets. Inside the checkpoint may be secure, but how safe is a slow moving line of not-yet-screened passengers?

More than this, the national security debate remains hyper-focused on threats to aviation, while our rail system remains dangerously under protected, our infrastructure virtually unguarded, and our cyber networks open to thieves and evildoers. America is crippled by its fear of flying, which is exactly what Osama bin Laden and his cronies wanted when they planned 9/11.

So congratulations to those who fought so passionately to oppose TSA’s relaxed banned item list. You succeeded in saving your own skin from an unlikely minor cut. Where does that leave the rest of us? Certainly none the safer.

By

Justin Hienz writes on counterterrorism, violent extremism and homeland security. In addition to his journalistic...