Wednesday, August 20, 2008

My Security is in the Hands of Idiots

The name, it's all in the name, folks.

Meet James Robinson, retired Air National Guard Brigadier General and now commercial airline pilot. Captain Robinson is also one of the few commercial pilots who fly for a major airline and is certified by the Transportation Security Administration to carry a weapon in the cockpit - and he does.

He's also a terrorist.

See, James Robinson is on the TSA's "No-Fly" list.

Here's a guy who spent a significant fraction of his life serving the country and fighting the nation's enemies, is certified to carry a weapon through airport security and into the cockpit of a commercial aircraft in order to defend his passengers should the need arise, is trusted to pilot a multi-million dollar jet over American territory loaded with civilian passengers and explosive jet fuel, has been issued a flightcrew security badge and trusted with airport security access codes - and has to go through terrorist screening every single time he checks into his job.


Not so - not yet anyway, but give me a minute here.

It should be fairly obvious that this particular James Robinson is not one of the droids we're looking for. Nor is James Robinson, former US District Attorney and Assistant Attorney General in the Clinton Administration. And neither is James Robinson, who doesn't currently have an occupation - no, he's not some unemployed slacker, give him a break, he's only eight years old. But because of their names, James the General, James the Attorney, and James the Fourth Grader are on the Government's Terrorist Watch List. All have been stopped at the ticket counter and detained multiple times by TSA. And while they all eventually made their flights, they can expect to jump through hoops every time they try to travel via air, which in the case of James Robinson the Pilot, is pretty much every day.

Sounds crazy doesn't it? But such is the price of freedom from terrorism. As Americans, each and every one of us is a Security Soldier in the Great Patriotic War on Terrorism and we cannot be too careful. Somewhere, somehow, somebody named James Robinson did something that somebody in some division of the TSA took some kind exception to. It's all a little vague.

Who exactly is this mysterious James Robinson? Who is this underworld figure, this James Robinson, who lurks at the shadowy periphery of society? What crimes has he masterminded? What grave national threat does he pose? What has he done to attract the attention of the watery-eyed T-men? Has he tried to sneak more than one ounce of bottled water through security? Was his luggage found to contain an improvised nail clipping device? Did he attempt to board a plane with a pack of matches stuffed into his sock? Did he demand a second bag of peanuts in the air? Was he that coach passenger who attempted to use the first class lavatory after pounding down two jumbo bean burritos and a pint of Porter at the airport Chili's? What could it be?

Well, nobody outside of TSA knows exactly - and from the external indicators it would appear that nobody inside of TSA has a clear idea either. Be that as it may, James Robinson is on the list.

The problem is that there are, well, a lot of James Robinsons.

Over a million, world wide.

In fact, I personally know three James Robinsons myself, any one of which could be the James Robinson.

The mind boggles at the shear magnitude of TSA's job. Imagine the scope of this enormous search, the vast assets necessary to keep the airport bars and boarding ramps and skies clear of James Robinsons. Imagine, any one of those thousands of passengers jamming the concourses of O'Hare, or JFK, or LAX, or BumpPucker, Heartland America could be the man himself, James Robinson, wily terrorist, enemy of the state, hater of freedom and the American way.

Is it James Robinson, Professor of Government at Harvard? Maybe, you know how those liberal longhaired tree-hugging bastards like to blow stuff up. And Harvard is a veritable hotbed of Jihadism. Timothy McVeigh himself was captured wearing a Harvard hoodie (What? Facts? Don't cloud the issue with your facts, we're talking national security here. Start talking facts and you'll be on the list).

Could it be James Robinson, "The Map Guy?" Who makes "art on maps" and is a business partner of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration? It just could be that ole' James Robinson The Map Guy is hiding a few terrorist messages in those maps. Think of it, secret communications embedded in AAA Flip Books and Auto Club maps, undetectable, hidden in truck stops and gas stations across the county. Why any of James Robinson's Jihadist associates could pick one up for free with their rental car at the airport kiosk! No, best we keep this bastard on the ground.

Maybe it's James Robinson, the British comic book author and screen writer. It's a good bet, the shoe bomber guy was British and we can't be too careful when it comes to the English, after all they did burn down the White House once. The country is full of dukes and earls and knights and other such soccer hooligans - any one of which could attempt to headbutt their way into the cockpit and fly the plane into a Manchester United match.

Is it James Robinson, Director of the Colorado Opera? Opera is often in Italian for crying out loud. There is a lot of terrorism in Italy and it's a pretty good bet that James Robinson is attempting to unleash the basso profondo power at his disposal to destroy America. No, best he be kept off air transport and confined to the mountains of Colorado where the worst he could do is cause avalanches with his terrorist artform and bury a few foreign skiers and a beer brewery or two.

Is it James Robinson the filmmaker? James Robinson the Trombonist? James Robinson the Brooklyn community activist? James Robinson the biblical scholar? The list, it goes on, and the haystack is full of needles.

If only there was a way to sort them all out. If only the technology had advanced to the point where there was a way to sort through this endless parade of Xeroxed James Robinsons. If only there was something like a unique identifier issued to all Americans. If only a government agency could come up with a unique identifier, some agency that could do more to support this war on terrorism, say like the Social Security Administration maybe. Hey, "Security" is their middle name! Or if only each human had some unique identifying feature, damn this bland bilateral sameness we all share. If only the Lord had seen fit to give us unique finger prints, or retinas, or DNA, or street addresses, or even driver's licenses, then the James Robinsons wouldn't be able to hide so easily amongst us.

And if only my security didn't rest in the hands of complete and total idiots.

Yeah, if only.


  1. How do they distinguish them at the counter from their terrorist doppelgangers? Asking "are you a terrorist" just doesn't seem effective.

  2. The TSA, Anne, is working night and day to create a multibillion dollar computer system to distinguish between the James Robinsons. Ordinary human eyes and judgement cannot be trusted to distinguish reliably between an eight year boy, an airline pilot, and Osama Bin Laden. In matters of national security these things cannot be left to chance.

  3. Wasn't there a case where a damn Air Marshal was on the list?

    The TSA is made up of people who couldn't pass the ASVABs or the State Police exams, and thus were available when we created this vast bureaucratic boondoggle. You don't see ex-SEALs or CIA analysts in JFK. You see goobers who always wanted to be a cop, but couldn't. It's like putting the DMV in charge of airport security.

  4. What, no Simon and Garfunkel reference?

    And here's to you, Mr. Robinson:
    TSA has you on the list

    (Acoustic guitar solo and fade out follows.)

    The bad news, Jim, is that isn't just your security. You already know: it's your whole damn country. What you describe is what happens when the government panics and orders every law-enforcement and intelligence agency in the country to do a massive, unfiltered data dump so they don't ever miss anything again. GIGO.

  5. I've been researching TSA horror stories for a short story/novella I'm writing and they are certainly eye opening. Stupidity is rampant!

    I have to admin, when we were leaving Denver, I blindly got in the shortest security line. I looked up and it was one of the full body scan lines. I'm not sure how I feel about those, except that they're overly intrusive, so I switched to a traditional line.

    I guess I'm a Luddite. :P

  6. Oh, Jeri, I'm sure that the mall-police refugees at TSA are all honorable and upright defenders of freedom who would never, ever, ever, no way, no how, abuse the ability to see through your clothes and record the resulting images into jpg format suitable for internet framing or recreational use in the TSA lounge. Nope, just can't believe anything like that would ever happen. I'm sure as Sunday that sufficient and efficient safeguards are in place. Absolutely. Yep.

  7. Actually, asking "are you a terrorist" is quite an effective tactic...but only if the person asking the questions is a trained professional who knows what to watch for in the person answering the questions.

    El Al and the Israeli airports have used just that sort of questioning very effectively for years.

  8. Sarcasm, Nathan, that's what we're going for here. Sarcasm. You're from Brooklyn for crying out loud, sarcasm should come second nature for you. Not to mention the whole Hollywood things...

  9. Isn't that negated by knowing what they're looking for? Like knowing how to beat the lie-detector?

  10. Anne, yes and no. Sarcasm aside, what Nathan said is correct. A highly trained agent can, with fair reliability, detect untruths and dissembling in an unprepared subject when presented with a direct question. There are certain "tells" that are common to most humans no matter what their culture. For example, many people look up and left when attempting to lie off the cuff. Note this is not a hard and fast rule, but it is fairly common. There are many other indicators, and taken as a whole by a trained and experienced security agent - they can be fairly accurate a large part of the time. However, with sufficient training those tells can be reduced or eliminated, just as professional poker players work to eliminate their tells for exactly the same reason.

    TSA security agents are neither highly trained or experienced, neither are ticket agents. El Al, Israeli security, and the Mosad are, very much so. Big difference.

  11. Keep in mind, too, that what Nathan and Jim are talking about is for the purposes of screening (and assumes a situation where Fourth Amendment concerns are nonexistent or reduced by implied consent). That is, a "tell" would not be grounds in the U.S. for a search out on the street, nor would a "tell" ever be admissible for any purpose in an American courtroom; furthermore, even in the airport setting a tell would merely one factor in determining whether a subject ought to receive more scrutiny than others passing through the same line.

    The airport analysis is assuming that there's a degree of implied consent in going to an American airport. I.e. that when you go to an airport, you agree to give up some of your rights in exchange for the privilege of being at the airport and/or getting on an airplane. If you did retain your rights in an airport, I don't think the screening tests Nate and Jim discuss would pass muster--the subjectivity involved on the part of the screener and suspect are such that there is no way you'd have articulable suspicion to conduct further investigation, much less probable cause to initiate a search. But that's pretty much a law school Socratic BS session at this point: you have nearly no rights in an American airport, suck it up or stay grounded.

    As for the "lie detector"--calling it that is one of my pet peeves. There is no such thing as a lie detector. The polygraph is vaguely used for that purpose in certain sectors, based on the unproven assertion that changes in the autonomic behaviors measured by the polygraph (breathing, heart rate, perspiration) are involuntarily connected to the test subject's honesty. In fact, the only "valid" purpose for the machine in interrogations is as an intimidation tactic--most people think the polygraph detects lies, and if you tell someone they "flunked" it, it becomes much easier to get them to say what you wanted them to. (If the subject is in fact guilty of something, you might even get a legitimate confession that way. Of course, sometimes you get a false confession--but you know what they say about omelets and breaking a few eggs.) Anyway, "beating the lie detector" is therefore sort of an oxymoron: some people can control their autonomic reactions* to a sufficient extent to mask variances between test questions and so-called "control" questions such that an examiner is unable to make a firm statement as to the degree of alleged duplicity in the subject's answers--and that's what they call "beating the lie detector."

    *Sometimes with help: allegedly, some subjects have "beaten the test" with props such as a tack hidden in the shoe, stepping on the tack when necessary to spike heart rate, breathing and perspiration. Polygraph examiners say that doesn't actually work--then again, they also say their machine detects duplicity.

  12. I'm sure that the mall-police refugees at TSA are all honorable and upright defenders of freedom who would never, ever, ever, no way, no how, abuse the ability to see through your clothes and record the resulting images into jpg format

    And people wonder why I wear baggy clothes all the time.

    I'd rather not be someone the screeners pick out to go through the "special" scanner.

  13. Speaking as somebody who has taken the polygraph (I'm counting on my fingers here, uh, one, two,...) eleven times as part of my security access screening, yeah, what Eric said.

    In the hands of trained and experienced investigator, the polygraph's primary usefulness is as a tool of intimidation. Additionally, the polygraph must be administered exactly right, under exactly the correct conditions, with the proper preparation - or it is utterly useless.

    Techniques for "beating" the polygraph are ineffective - if the poly is administered correctly, e.g. the poly is used as a tool to for the agent to observe the subject and place him or her in the right frame of mind - i.e. conditioning.

  14. I'd rather not be someone the screeners pick out to go through the "special" scanner.

    Not me, I hope they pick me - I'm wearing the special underwear.

  15. If I have the time tomorrow, I'll scan my Drivers License picture and post it. Every time I've flown since 2001, I've been "selected for random screening."

    Hint: my pic looks a little like Mohammed Atta.

  16. I think next time I get a chance to go through a scanner I'll make some barium-painted Wonder Woman clothing, especially for the machine.

    My sis is a rad tech so I'm sure I can get a stash of the stuff. :)

    Of course, I'd imagine the next thing I'd be hearing is the snap of latex in the morning. But tweaking the system might be worth it.

  17. I'm wearing the special underwear.

    Is that like the "special hell"?

  18. No, it's the ones with with strange designs traced on them in metallic paint, so that in the scanner it would appear that I am an extraterrestrial in a human suit...

  19. You mean you *aren't* an extraterrestrial in a human suit?!

  20. Because, as we all know, terrorists travel under their own names.

  21. Jeri: I think next time I get a chance to go through a scanner I'll make some barium-painted Wonder Woman clothing, especially for the machine.

    You know, it would be even more fun (in a really sick way) to swallow some barium and then go through one of those machines. Combination airport screening and gastrointestinal work-up: "There's the stomach, seem to have a hiatal hernia there. The small intestine is fine, but holy cow the large intestine... Better see your doctor about a colonoscopy when you get home..."


    Didn't think so.

    Natalie -- masquerading as a gastroenterologist today

  22. These stories make me happy to have a fairly unique name... Although, if I ever get on the damn list, how would I be able to say "You've got the wrong guy!"? Hmmm...

    Seriously, though, I thought that a person on the NF list has no way of "explaining" his situation and making his flight. At least, that seemed to be the gist of everything I read on the subject in the past. The rules must have changed slightly...

  23. There's the stomach, seem to have a hiatal hernia there.

    I misread this as a hentai hernia.

    (drops head into hands)

    I'm ruined I tell you! Ruined!

  24. Ilya, you can't get your name off the list, there's no appeal process at all, and no public criteria for how you end up on the list. And from my time in the intel field, my experience is that this means that there is no criteria. Multiple agencies have input, and any one of them, including non-intel, non-security entities, can flag a name and have it added to the list. TSA doesn't actually maintain the list, the FBI has cognizance I believe.

    Once flagged at the airport, you are taken to holding, were your identity is verified (hopefully) as not the guy on the list. If you are the guy on the list, well, who the hell knows what happens to you. Once verified that you are not the guy, you are given a letter, for that flight only, and sent on your way.

    Now without published criteria, and an appeal process - The List has become McCarthism in spades. Don't piss off the wrong people, or you'll end up on the list. It's become the method of keeping the traveling population in line.

    Take this case for example. Notice what they threatened her with when she didn't cooperate. Notice that nobody, TSA, the Police, or the Airline could explain what she did wrong, how it was a National Security threat (caps intended), or how it affected public safety. Get in line, or get put on the list.


    Fucking bastard Gestopo motherfucking ratassed shitheaded pricks, every last one of these TSA "Agents." These are the same people that weren't good enough to be mall police, let alone real cops, now they've got a gun, a badge, and unlimited extra constitutional power.

    And this more than anything else is why I purely hate George Fucking Bush and the rest of the goddamned Republicans.


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