There is an inherent, and easy to see, contradiction with seeking "safety" in the way the naked scanning machines and pat downs are being applied. I am surprised that apparently no one at a major media outlet has picked up on this. We are told that only those people who set off a metal detector are being given the "option" of going through an X-Ray machine or being forced to have an aggressive, all body pat down. Why should we believe an underwear bomber would set off the detector? Could he not place wires in the carry-on and then hook them up in the restroom? So, right away, the “universe” of those getting or being considered for body scans has been reduced dramatically.
Anyway, let's assume that the TSA and its leaders are entirely sincere in what they are doing. What's wrong with the picture?
If finding people with explosives on their bodies or in their underwear were the true objective, what, on a statistical level, would the chances be that these methods would work? Since we know about two million people a day go through airport screening (2.5 million before our joyous holiday with family), how many are being put through the machines? We don't have figures on that, but the TSA told the media yesterday that about one percent, and then later about three percent, of the public was getting the pat down treatment. Using the three percent figure, that would mean about 60,000 people per day. If we assume that this 60K represents about 5% of those getting scanned (there is no way to use a more accurate figure, because one isn't available from the TSA), then we can extrapolate that 300,000 people per day are going through the scanners or pat downs. This estimate, very rough, would seem about right (if a bit high) based on the number of airports with scanners.
Suppose that five "devices" were distributed among the two million people going to the airport on any given day. On a purely random basis, there would be .75% of one device within the group of 300,000 being scanned. 4.25 devices would be in the general population not being scanned. (The actual number of people scanned could be much lower, perhaps by half.)
What do these figures reveal? That there is almost NO CHANCE at all that the scanners would find a bomb. Put another way, it would largely be a matter of luck to find a bomb, sort of like trusting a blind man to shoot a deer with a bow and arrow at 75 ot 80 yards. There aren't enough people going through scanners, and there aren't enough scanners out there, to have a good chance of finding a bomb. Further, you'd be looking for one bomb, not necessarily five, which increased the odds in my example. All it takes is one to get through, which is the fulcrum on which the assumption turns that any measure, or series of measures, is never quite enough.
Obviously, the TSA could refine its means of selection for the scanners, but, according to what they have said, it is purely random, decided by setting off the beep. Presumably, a terrorist would be smart enough to find a way to defeat that trigger. So, we are looking through the subset of those who set off the beep, not the much larger group who do not. As a result, most people are not being scanned.
The statistical odds are not only that a bomb would not be found, but that three or four devices out of five would walk right through the screening area and on to the aircraft. The TerryReport has been very cautious over the last nine years in regard to how these types of scenarios might playout, in order, first, to be responsible and not do anyone else’s “work” for them. However, by insisting on the x-ray scanners and aggressive pat downs, the TSA has put these matters into public debate: we either face up to the fact that we have to discuss these things or else we just run and hide inside x-ray machines and hope they are right. I choose discussion, as open as possible while still being restrained. There is no choice.
If we aren’t likely to catach a terrorist, why are will pulling our hair out? We have, at best, a minimal chance to catch someone with the x-scannners. This is why we are being asked to put ourselves, our children and our elderly population through potentially dangerous x-ray machines or humiliating, prison like pat downs? This is why we are being asked to tolerate touching in the genital area and, according to ABC News, some women will be asked, in a private setting, to remove their skirts?
There has to be something larger at work. I would assume that the intention is to "ask" all travelers to go through the scanners in the future. Option two would be to force everyone through when there is a clear sign that other intelligence and interdiction efforts have failed (those signs came many times during the last nine years, so that wouldn't be some sort of new crisis).
My conclusion, and it can be backed up by more sophisticated statistical analysis, is that, at the present level of utilization, the scanners are virtually useless. The TSA or the president could announce that their use is being stopped and reviewed without any increase in danger to the public, unless you would consider .0025% (1/4 of one percent) added risk unacceptable. (This is not a scientifically derived calculation, but a rough estimation.)
We are seeing new video every day of how poorly pat downs are being conducted at U.S. airports. Last night, I saw video of an old lady being rubbed all over her body and the TSA employee was actually rubbing her bare arms (what could she be hiding there?), evidently because this is how they are trained. I can only say to those who see "no problem" with these procedures to get ready for what comes next, because it is likely to be far more ugly and intrusive.
Have a nice flight.
Doug Terry 11.24.10