Cynical Synapse

Sat, 19 Mar 2011

TSA Jackboots Assault Train Passengers

Filed under: Business, Citizen rights, Duh, Government, Life, Oppression, Passenger rail, Railroads, Rants, Transit, Travel — cynicalsynapse @ 6:53 pm

VIPR team expands

Frequent readers may know that I am a railfan, meaning I like railroads. That may bias me, but I also believe passenger rail is essential to America’s prosperity. We cannot spend out way out of road congestion and there are physical constraints on air travel. A coherent rail passenger policy, including high-speed rail, is essential to our country remaining competetive in the not-so-distant future. Unfortunately, many myopic politicians can’t see past the measley Federal subsidies to Amtrak. That’s different from airport and highway subsidies how? Never mind Amtrak ridership has been rising since 2000. But, I digress.

Most frequent readers probably know of my disdain for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). On February 13th, the government thugs took over the Savannah GA Amtrak station to screen passengers. Two big problems. First, TSA was screening passengers after they got off the train. Second, passengers don’t have to go through the station to get to or from the train platforms. More pointless security theater.

subject to mandatory screening

While TSA claims they made prior arrangements with the rail passenger agency, the Amtrak police chief says TSA’s actions were illegal and a surprise to Amtrak. In fact, Chief John O’Connor thought initial blog posts on the TSA extremism were a joke. He noted Amtrak police operate within the Constitution and TSA agents have no right to go beyond that.

TSA justifies their actions, saying people didn’t have to enter the station. I’m sorry—doesn’t that prove the idiocy of TSA’s whole concept? If you don’t want to be screened, just go around the station. If you don’t want a full-body scan, just go to one of 85.6% of airports that don’t have the scanners.

TSA at Tampa bus terminal

February’s assault on Savannagh was part of TSA’s VIPR program. While it sounds good, VIPR—Visible Intermodal Protection and Response—teams are randomly executed and consist of ad hoc groups. These include Air Marshals—to provide TSA with armed agents on the ground—and bomb detection teams. They descend on bus terminals and wherever else they happen to want to.

Not satisfied with harassing the flying public, TSA has teams of shock troops running amok to subjugate bus riders and intimimdate train passengers. Didn’t we used to claim these were the evils of communism? Can anyone show any tangible security benefits to the TSA’s excesses?

Previously on security theater:

Sun, 30 Jan 2011

TSA Tightens Fascist Grip; Stamps Out Competition

Filed under: Business, Citizen rights, Flying, Government, Hypocrits, Politics, Take action, Travel, Unions — cynicalsynapse @ 3:16 pm

US Department of Security Theater

Only a couple months after the uproar over full body scanners, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has put a halt to the private screening option. Only 16 commercial airports, out of 494, use private security screeners in lieu of the TSA. Amazingly, the TSA and its union are obviously intimidated by privitization. John Gage, President of the American Federation of Government Employees, said:

The nation is secure in the sense that the safety of our skies will not be left in the hands of the lowest-bidder contractor, as it was before 9/11. We applaud Administrator Pistole for recognizing the value in a cohesive federalized screening system and work force.

Clearly, the union is happy to not face challenges from privatized (whether union or not) security personnel. Despite what he says, there’s no mistaking Mr. Gage’s primary concern is not losing dues-paying members.

TSA pats down old lady in a wheel chair

Just two months ago, TSA was “neutral” on private screeners. Now Administrator John Pistole’s attempt to protect his fiefdom is thinly veiled, at best. Loss of airports to private security means reductions in personnel—and funding—for the TSA. Pistole’s comment:

“I examined the contractor screening program and decided not to expand the program beyond the current 16 airports as I do not see any clear or substantial advantage to do so at this time.

Since when does government have the authority to limit free enterprise? If private companies can meet (or exceed) the government standard of service, why are they being denied the opportunity to do so? And why is capitalism being stiffled in deference to the interests of a monopolistic government agency? If the Screening Partnership Program is no longer part of TSA policy, why is it still on their website?

More importantly, why are Americans willing to surrender more of their freedoms to Government? Ask your Congressman and Senators to question TSA’s business unfriendly position.

Previously on security theater:

Wed, 08 Dec 2010

Engler, Part Deux! Rail Be Damned!

Filed under: Budget, Detroit, Government, Michigan, Passenger rail, Politics, Railroads, Transit, Travel — cynicalsynapse @ 10:07 pm

High speed rail

Michigan stands to lose out on $161 million in Federal high speed rail money because Michigan Senate leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester Hills) did not allow the bill to come to a vote. Bishop’s cheap shot is almost as dispicable as former Gov. John Engler’s (R) last minute veto of regional transit for metro Detroit.

Bishop had said he’d allow the State Senate to vote on the measure already passed by the State House.

I don’t ask the state taxpayers to finance anything unless a business plan is presented that gives us some indication that it brings value.

Possible Woodward corridor transit

Apparently, anti-transit behavior is a Republican trait. Cece Grant, a native Detroiter and Michigan organizer for Transportation for America, summed it up this way.

The legislature failing to act is really putting us at a competitive disadvantage to the other states. It’s saying we’re stuck in the past.

There’s no way for your employees to get back and forth to work. We’re not a mobile society. We don’t have bustling thriving downtowns.

Amtrak train

I look at it another way. I don’t support the full body scanners or “enhanced” pat downs at airports. But at 5-1/2 to 6 hours for a train ride to Chicago, rail is not competitive. On the other hand, high speed rail, with travel times between Chicago and Detroit around 3 hours, is competitive with both air travel and driving.

Without transit, and without high speed rail, Detroit is neither attractive nor competitive. In fact, Detroit is no better off than Mogadishu.

Previously on high speed rail and transit:

Sun, 28 Nov 2010

Rick Snyder on High Speed Rail: Crickets

Filed under: Government, Hypocrits, Life, Michigan, Passenger rail, Politics, Railroads, Stimulus, Take action, Travel — cynicalsynapse @ 2:23 pm

Midwest High Speed Rail Initiative

Michigan is sucking eggs in the quest for Federal dollars to develop high speed rail. Grants this year total only $200 million out of a request for $993 million. And none of that money is actually being used for high speed rail. From the Stimulus bill, Michigan got $40 million for new stations in Troy and Dearborn plus renovations to the Battle Creek station. The October grant—which requires Michigan to match $30 million&mash;covers purchasing Norfolk Southern’s track from Dearborn to Kalamazoo and upgrading it to 79 mph. It also includes reconstructing connecting track in West Detroit. None of this is the 110 mph or faster promised by high speed rail.

Amtrak owns the line between Kalamazoo and the state line near New Bufalo. In partnership with Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Amtrak’s Michigan line has been upgraded to 95 mph speeds along some segments. That’s almost high speed and plans call for raising the segment to 110 mph. Why Michigan didn’t get any Stimulus money for this is beyond me. Where are Sens. Carl “Leave ’em” Levin (D) and Debbie “Stab me now” Stabinow on this? How about US Reps. Fred Upton (R-06) and Mark Schauer (D-07)?

Amtrak 452 F59PHI

A recent poll of over 24,000 by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found 62% would ride high speed rail if it was available and competetive in time and price with flying or driving. I’ll bet the number would go up if it meant avoiding full body scanners and/or “enhanced” pat downs. Amtrak wants to cut time from Detroit to Chicago from 5-1/2 to 3-1/2 hours. I’d call that competive with driving. Round trip on Amtrak costs $62-84 depending on times. Airfare starts at $190, so travel by rail is more cost effective than flying. The problem is 5-1/2 hours takes too long while 3-1/2 hours makes skipping the security lines at the airport worth it.

Amtrak on its Michigan Division at Durand

Republicans John Kasich and Scott Walker, Govs.-elect in Ohio and Wisconsin, are hostile to high speed rail. In fact, Mr. Kasich wants to give up a $400 million grant for new passenger service from Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinatti, the 3C line. Despite popularity for a new Milwauke to Madison line, Walker wants to forego $810 million in high speed rail grants. Both expected to be able to repurpose the money for roads. Says US Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Ray LaHood: Not!

Like pirhana swarming to fresh blood in the water, a dozen states are asking for the $1.2 billion to be rejected by Ohio and Wisconsin. LaHood said there are “a lot of states that would like to have access to that money.”

What’s the word out of Michigan? Nothing. From Gov.-elect Rick Synder? Crickets. Good start on your 10-point plan, Gov. Nerd. Michigan needs the jobs and the infrastructure. Tell the “tough nerd” to take his hat off and belly up to the table with his empty plate and get Michigan’s fair share.

Previously on high speed rail:

Sun, 11 Jul 2010

US Passport Prices Up 50% Because They Can

Filed under: Behavior, Citizen rights, Government, Life, National security, Opportunists, Taxes, Travel — cynicalsynapse @ 11:46 am

US passports

Just announced this past week, US passport fees rise about 50% on 13 July. While it seems there’s hardly any notice for this hefty increase, the State Department has been considering it since February. What’s interesting is 70% of public comment was opposed to the increase. To skirt that, State just implements the price hike while Congress is recessed.

Why are prices going up now and by so much? According to the State Dept., it’s because new passports include high-tech security features. Woops. Those features have been in place since 2006. Never mind that those high tech features have been hacked already.

Customs and Border Protection checking documents

If it’s not the high-tech cost, then State says it’s because of increased demand. Woops! I’m sorry, but the increased demand is because US citizens need a passport to return to the US. This has been a requirement for air travelers since 2006 and in effect for land/sea crossings for the last year. So, the so-called increased demand doesn’t support a passport price hike right now, either.

I live 20 minutes from Windsor, Ontario, and it’s always been easier to go there than it has to come back to the US. The guys in the little booths on the US side are just so full of themselves. I’ve not been to Canada since 9/11 because I knew it would be painful to come back home. Maybe I just don’t like being treated like a suspect for no other reason than wanting to come home. Now the US has added a travel tax in the form of the passport requirement. And now, they’re raising that tax.

Nothing permitted in visitor center

The added hassle of entering the US has cost jobs, income, and taxes. It’s done little, if anything, to increase national and border security. As if that’s not bad enough, US passport security is in jeopardy because we outsouce making the smartchip to Thailand. Which means the passport requirement isn’t even accomplishing its intended purpose. Just more security theater with little tangible benefit.

Tue, 09 Mar 2010

Security Theater Leaves US More Vulnerable

Filed under: Flying, Global War on Terror, Government, National security, Terrorism, Travel — cynicalsynapse @ 7:38 pm

Schiphol airport

Dutch investigative reporter reporter Alberto Stegeman exposed a serious gap in airline security from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. In a piece broadcast March 7th on Undercover in Nederland, Stegeman showed how he bought a fifth of alcohol, then replaced it with water, and was able to bring the bottle onto a US-bound airliner.

How does this square with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) “3-1-1” rule? It should sync right up, since Netherlands agrees with the 3-1-1 concept. Only, I can bring a fifth of a gallon of liquid through security at Schiphol, but I can’t bring more than 3 ounces through security at Detroit Metro. What’s up with that?

Y’all probably know someone who has brought so-called contraband onto a flight. Airport security is not a perfect system and never will be. But, several fifth-gallons of liquid? There’s a big problem here.

Full body scanner

In the meantime, TSA is moving forward on fielding full-body scanners at US airports. Personally, I’m not in favor of these, unless it means I don’t have to take my shoes off. Still, I disagree with the Fatwah claiming the scanners violate Muslim decency. Please feel free to travel by any other means, such as tramp steamer, train, or car. If I’m going through the scanner, so are you. Too bad, so sad.

The illusion of safety leaves us more vulnerable. Because we think we’re safe, people tend to be less vigilant. But, the reality is we are at greater risk today than ever before. And yet, the authorities continue to focus on “feel-good” measures, like the 3-1-1 rule and take your shoes and belt off. I’m not aware of any terrorist or hijack incidents or attempts involving belts, are you?

Effective airport security boils down to behavioral profiling. That’s how the Israelis have been so successful with their air travel safety. Electronics, trained dogs, and schooled security personnel are all essential elements in a system. Paying attention to anomolies, however, will disrupt terrorists just as terrorists hope to circumvent machines. The human factor, through training and even “gut instinct”, is unpredictable, however, leaving terrorists to rely more on luck than skill. As Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan (ret) said, “Hope is not a method.”

Israeli airport screening

So, what’s keeping us from implementing good, sound security procedures? First, it’s our tendency to put a lot of faith in technology. Technology is totally objective so no one has to justify subjective decisions. An even bigger problem, however, is an effort to not offend or hurt anybody’s feelings. Officials want to avoid complaints of racial profiling. I’m quite certain most Muslims are not radical extremists, but all of the 9/11 terrorists, the shoe bomber, and the undie-bomber were all Islamist jihadists. Which leads to the third issue—TSA would have to train screeners to observe passengers to pick out those most deserving of additional questioning or screening, something they’re not too good at right now. And that means they’d have to also trust their people to do the right thing. When’s the last time you encountered a fairly senior government official who trusted the little guy? Besides, those things require thinking and making decisions. We’d rather have everything be predictable and adhere to easy-to-follow flowcharts.

We continue to harass the rule followers while ignoring bigger issues. It seems security theater still has a long run ahead of it.


Tue, 09 Feb 2010

Epic Fail: Airport Security Theater

Security screening at Detroit Metro

Airport security screening procedures just don’t make the grade. We take our shoes off because there was one shoe bomber. We have the Transportation Security Administration because airline contract security wasn’t doing a good enough job. We have limits on fluids we can take through security, but that didn’t stop the undie-bomber last December 25th.

These measures are all what I call feel-good security. Others use the term security theater. They’re essentially ineffective, but it looks like the authorities are doing something. Like when I took my kids to see the Liberty Bell in April 2002. The plaza was surrounded by the type of barricades you see around fair rides and the rule followers—us ordinary citizens—had to go into a trailer and pass through metal detectors. What’s the fricking point of that? Any terrorist could just drive his truck bomb right into the Liberty Bell building, but the rest of us had to suffer “security” procedures. I’ll tell you, a phenominal amount of money has been wasted on pointless security procedures and terrorism defense, but that’s for another post.

Brake, accelerator pedals

So, Monday, February 8th, Kaylan Policherla walked right past security into the concourse. Was the Metro Airport cop who sits by the security checkpoint asleep or something? What about the dozens—dozens—of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers at the checkpoint? The process is to queue up, get your boarding pass and identification checked, then go through the metal detectors. He had no boarding pass, so how could this 27-year-old Indian native (who became a US citizen in 2005) get past all this, including the airport cop? At what point should security, including airport police, react? This buffoon should have never made it past the security checkpoint.

Instead, TSA hit the breach alarm, which closed gates to secure the concourse from the terminal area beyond the checkpoint. Previously screened people in this area were evacuated and had to be re-screened. Some travelers missed their flights. Adding insult to injury, the airline will charge them change fees.

Kaylan Policherla

Not much is known about the man arrested for the breach. His car, bearing Ohio plates, was illegally parked in front of the terminal and he had no boarding pass or luggage.

FBI Special Agent filed a criminal complaint against Policherla in the U.S. District Court in Detroit.</p

“I am aware that Policherla was not responsive to verbal commands given him to him by airport police and that an airport officer discharged his Taser at subject, which had no effect on subject,” Thomas wrote.

So, officials found and searched Policherla’s 2001 Volkswagen Passat, with Ohio plates. They didn’t disclose finding anything.

Policherla was arraigned today in Federal District Court on misdemeanor charges of violating airport security. Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy also charged him with resisting arrest, a 2-year misdemeanor. Some seriously doubt Policherla’s innocence, or at least the value of his attempt to breach security.

Detroit’s McNamara terminal was shut down for about 50 minutes. Screening began again after dogs searched the cordoned off area of the terminal. Metro’s incident follows security failures at JFK and Newark airport security breaches. These all beg the question of whether or not aviation security is properly focused. I think not.

Tue, 29 Dec 2009

The System Worked—Not

Bomb-sniffing dog on patrol at DTW

Believe it or not, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said “the system worked” on Sunday’s Today show on NBC. It’s unfathomable how she came to that conclusion unless she thinks a faulty detonator and heroic Dutch tourist are now part of the homeland security system. Here’s what didn’t work.

Abdulmutallab's charred underwear

In view of all those red flags and missed opportunities, Napolitano back-pedaled, admitting the system “failed in every respect”. Ya think? The ever-clueless Homeland Security Secretary also said Abdulmutallab’s case was an isolated incident. Pres. Obama said the same thing. Napolitano said there was no indication he was acting as part of a larger plot or group. Funny, that’s not how al-Qaida sees it. Yesterday, al-Aqaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility.

Guilty until proven innocent

The terrorist group, formed from merging Yemeni and Saudi al-Qaida cells, claimed to have provided the explosive and chemical detonator for Abdulmutallab’s failed suicide bombing. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Penninsula also said the attempt was in retaliation for US assistance to Yemeni authorities. On Dec. 17 and 23, airstrikes were launched against suspected terrorist targets in Yemen. The only problem with al Qaida’s claim? Abdulmutallab bought his ticket the day before the first strike. But, then, certainly al-Qaida wouldn’t lie, would they?

More importantly, however, Abdulmutallab bragged he is the first of many such terrorists. Apparently he claims there are 25 Somali and Pakastani Muslims in Yemen, all of whom were radicalized at British mosques. They’re training up to mount similar attacks on western airliners. British and US authorities are supposedly working together on this. I hope the Brits hit Homeland Security upsdie the head when the planets start to align. We were lucky with Flight 253. We shoulnd’t expect that luck to hold out.

Sun, 27 Dec 2009

Stay In Your Seat and Do Nothing

Airline passengers

Let me see if I get this. Airline passengers must now stay in their seats for the last hour of the flight, keep their hands out of their laps, stay out of their carry-ons, and no electronic devices. That’s enough to cause me to become a terrorist! Can you imagine, nothing to do for a freaking hour? No music, no reading, no nothing! What about the first part of the flight? There’s no terrorist risk then? Give me a damn break, you looney tunes security geeks.

While ordinary citizens take their shoes off to pass through security, Christmas Day’s leg bomber had no such scrutiny. In fact, he boarded the plane in Nigeria with a pantsful of the explosive PETN. Despite his father having reported concerns about extremism to the US Embassy, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was not on the no-fly list. In fact, he had a valid visa to enter the US for a religious seminar. The visa, issued June 16, 2008, is valid until June 12, 2010. As it turns out, he did not have a return trip ticket.

None of this raised any red flags or concerns? I’m stunned, yet Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolotano said the system worked. The system didn’t do shit! It was Dutch tourist Jasper Schuringa that saved NW 253. What Napolotano should have said is the system over-reacted in exemplary fashion. They imposed extra searches, including pat-downs, and the do-nothing-for-the-last-hour rule.

TSA wands airline passenger

Here’s the key point from my perspective. US law enforcement and intelligence agencies had Abdulmutallab in their databases. His own father was concerned the man had become “radicalized.” Yet, he’s not on the no-fly list, and he boards a plane destined for the US with no return ticket. And this does not raise any red flags with any security officials until after the man burns his pants off?

Guilty until proven innocent

This incident seems to demonstrate inter-agency cooperation is no better than before 9-11. It show, obviously, international air travel security still has major flaws. But that won’t stop the Transportation Security Administration from making domestic passengers pay a price. After all, the more painful security is, the more effective it must be, right?

Nonetheless, the same Amsterdam-Detroit flight had a scare today as a Nigerian passenger stayed in the lavatory for over an hour. After being taken into custody, the man was found to be a Nigerian businessman who presented no threat to the aircraft.

Is this where we’re headed in air travel? Guilty until proven innocent?

Sat, 26 Dec 2009

Air Travel Security Hoops and Loopholes

Anyone who flies these days realizes air travel isn’t any fun anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but I think it’s more because of so-called security and airline policies. The seats are wedged in on the planes, they recycle the air the bare minimum, and you can buy a snack for $5. Did I mention they charge you for taking your luggage along? What’s up with that? So, the airlines are part of the problem, but I guess the convenience—time-saving, mostly—outweighs my complaints as I continue to fly.

My real annoyance is with airport security. Anybody remember when they were doing the random second checks at the gates? Did you notice most of the time they were selecting little old ladies? What about the big guy wearing jeans and a tank top? There are dozens of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guys at every screening point, most of them standing around. On a recent trip to Orlando, I noticed the trams from the gates to the terminal were manned by TSA guys. What’s that got to do with air travel security? Everyone on the trams just got off a flight or has been through screening. So manpower utlization is not exactly the most efficient.

What really bugs me is having to take my shoes off. Now they’ve added belts and coats. I’d be real interested to know exactly how many would-be terrorists they’ve caught this way. Wouldn’t random secondary screening to check shoes, belts, etc., be more effective and less disruptive? And, while the liquid thing affect me personally, I think it’s idiotic. I’m not a chemist, but I’ll bet there can be a liquid explosive that’s powerful enough in 3 ounces. All this stuff amounts to what I call feel-good security. The rule followers—the 99% of us who just want to go somewhere—have to do dumb things for an impression of security. What about strollers and wheelchairs and such? Who’s checking them? How do the TSA guys know my 3 ounces aren’t some kind of acid?

Don’t misunderstand. I’m all for effective security measures, ones that make sense and have a definite benefit for the burden they entail. Hence, my concern for the latest incident. On a Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab tried to detonate some explosives during the plane’s decent, succeeding only in burning his pants off. The 23-year-old Nigerian, who was subdued by another passenger and subsequently taken into custody, allegedly acted on orders from al-Qaida. Another passenger apparently was burned but the aircraft was not damaged. So, caught unawares, Homeland Security promises additional security measures.

The media jumped right on the similarity with the Shoebomber case. That December 2001 incident involved al-Qaida operative Richard Reid attempting to blow up a flight from Paris. In August 2006, UK officials foiled a liquid explosives plot on flights from Heathrow. And now we have “Shoe Bomber II” on a flight from Amsterdam, which originated in Nigeria. See any similarities here? Yep! Every one of these cases originated outside the US. They’re all foreign flights. That tells me security needs enhancing in Europe and Africa. Is anybody looking there?

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