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Crony Capitalism Drives Airport Security

[Editor’s Note: The following post is by TDV contributor, Wendy McElroy]

There is yet another reason not to fly into or within the US. “Nazi-style detention pods” – that's what opponents of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have called the new “exit pods” being tested at the Syracuse (NY) airport. But the pods are not primarily a rape of civil rights. Their import is equally ominous but more subtle. Their main purpose seems to be profit rather than the flexing of arbitrary power, although the two are closely related.

A major change is occurring in one aspect of airport security. The change? The TSA will no longer be monitoring exit lanes at one-third of American airports; the TSA withdrawal is likely to extend to all airports over time. Exit lanes are the means by which passengers who have completed their travel leave the airport terminal. TSA agents had been policing the lanes to prevent passengers from walking the 'wrong' way and re-entering the terminal. Now that task is left to airport security because, as TSA deputy administrator John Halinski explains, ”We firmly believe that exit-lane monitoring is not a screening function, but rather an issue of access control.” Apparently, Halinski believes the 'S' in TSA stands for “Screening” because “Security” definitely includes access control.

If the exit pods at Syracuse are an indication of how airport security will handle the job, then leaving a terminal may well become slower, more frustrating and a bit more degrading. The pods resemble revolving doors into which people walk one at a time. A robotic voice 'welcomes' the person as a glass door seals behind him; there is a video camera and intercom in each pod; when a red light turns green, the forward glass door slides open and releases the person into the wild. It is not clear what happens to those in wheelchairs or with stacks of luggage. It is not clear whether parents can take children into the pods with them.

Exit monitoring at airports is nothing new. But the older methods are constant flow; that is, passengers shuffle by a security agent or they enter an area that seals without requiring individual passengers to halt in place. Some airports use a large version of a turnstile or sensors that detect if someone is walking in the 'wrong' direction. By contrast, the Syracuse exit pods trap individuals, one by one, in an air-locked system with many moving parts, and expensive accessories. A complicated untested technology that is doomed to constant repair is replacing simple tried-and-true ones. Why?

While other cry “civil liberties violation!,” I bemoan “crony capitalism.” Both may be true but the latter is the more likely motive force. In other words, who got the contract for the expensive pods, their repair and their inevitable update? If there are civil liberty issues here, then they are 1) authorities are utterly indifferent to the rights of passengers when the prospect of profit arises, and 2) the dehumanizing drive continues to make automatic obedience a habit. But civil liberties seem to be a secondary target.

Airport security claims the exalted revolving doors will save money by reducing the need for agents. As supporting evidence, they point to the TSA's rationale for withdrawing its agents from exit lanes: to save money. Neither agency's explanation makes sense.

The airport wants to replace low-wage guards with an elaborate exit system. The entire overhaul of security is estimated to require $49.7 million. The described construction encompasses more than the exit area, but that area is a main focus if not the main focus. Let's assume that half of the expense, or $24.85 million, will be directed toward the exit area. If a guard's wage has been accurately reported as $11/hour, then the cost of constructing the pods and exit area would be equal to 2,259,090 man hours. For one guard posted 24 hours a day, the replaced man hours translate into 94,128 days or 13,446.9 weeks for a total of 258.5 years. If four exit guards were necessary (Syracuse is a relatively small airport), then the pods would replace 64.6 years worth of collective labor.

Of course, the projected price tag does not include problems encountered in construction, the pods' ongoing maintenance, the need for replacement, or the monthly bump up in electricity. These expenses are lost in the airport's rush to assure the public that construction will not raise taxes. It will be financed instead by an “airport passenger facility charge” added on to every ticket; in short, a tax-funded corporation will impose its own corporate tax upon 'customers' in order to construct facilities that violate their rights and dignity.

The economics of the pod construction make sense only in two contexts. First, the airport wants to avoid or divest itself of unionized employees; unions have been a source of conflict in all areas of airport and airline operations. Second, crony capitalism. This is the faux capitalism by which profits do not result from productivity but from political connections, which often include bribes or kickbacks. The Syracuse Hancock International Airport official “sneak preview” of the security overhaul listed 17 local firms that will profit richly from the construction. Who do the firms know? With what financial incentives did they 'purchase' their contracts?

TSA's economic explanation of withdrawing from exit areas makes even less sense. Halinski claimed the savings would amount to $88.1 million. He may be correct but it is difficult to believe that savings played any part in the decision to withdraw personnel. The TSA is famous for wasting tax money.

Consider just one recent example. In 2007, the TSA purchased hundreds and hundreds of full body scanners; some estimates go well over 1,000. The machines caused a public furor because they produced graphically nude images of scanned passengers and were associated with health risks. In early 2013, the TSA abandoned the full-body machines and offered them for sale to prisons and jails. For example, the former TSA scanners were offered to West Michigan county jails to scan prisoners for contraband.

But TSA's frugality in 'recycling' is not praiseworthy. Dar Leaf the Barry County (Michigan) Sheriff explained. The machines cost the government $160,000 apiece but TSA is offering them at 7 percent of that value; the base cost to law enforcement is $7,500 with the transfer and setup fees, the transportation and training costs driving the total to about $15,000. The TSA is clearly not pinching pennies. Why should it?

The corporate profits from the full-body scanners have already been banked. The former Department of Homeland Security commissar Michael Chertoff was one of the most vocal advocates of the machine; his security consulting firm Chertoff Group just happened to include OSI System, one of two licensed manufacturers of full-body scanners. Nevertheless, Chertoff claimed to be an unbiased expert, and OSI received hundreds of millions in crony contracts. When the scam was exposed and the machines were being pulled for being an affront to dignity and health, the government seemed indifferent to the blatant money grab. A headline in Daily Tech read “Despite Allegations of Fraud, TSA Lets Scanner Maker Keep Nearly $300M”. It was all about profit, not protection, civil rights be damned, if they are noticed at all.

What explains the TSA's withdrawal of agents? An educated guess is that the agency wants to swell the ranks of personnel available to conduct prescreening. The Secure Flight Program has been in place for years but it seems to be ramping up. For example, prescreening used to apply only to passengers entering the States; now it applies to domestic travel. Even before you leave home for the airport, TSA will conduct a pre-crime assessment of your personal and professional records. The information accessed includes employment records, tax I.D. (it is not clear if the IRS is cooperating), travel history, car registration, credit card info, any police data, and property records. A bounty of other public information is available including gun ownership and some health records but, like the link to the IRS, it is not clear which data will be used.

[Editor's Note: You can get a jump start on avoiding all of this by clicking here.]

What is clear: the program will consume a massive amount of man hours. By outsourcing the monitoring of exits, TSA has beefed up its Secure Flight personnel without increasing its budget for hiring. And it can offer the public- pleasing reason of wanting to save money.

I applaud anyone who protests any act of authority these days but the anti-TSA crowd is overreacting to the civil liberties aspect of the Syracuse exit pods and under-reacting to the crony capitalism one. Sometimes the ongoing thuggery at American airports is all about “follow the money.” Again, of course, the two are intimately entangled.

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Wendy McElroy is a regular contributor to the Dollar Vigilante, and a renowned individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a co-founder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist in 1982, and is the author/editor of twelve books, the latest of which is "The Art of Being Free". Follow her work at www.wendymcelroy.com.



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