Expert: TSA Screening Is Security Theater

TSA Head Disputes Claim, Tells <b>60 Minutes</b> Measures Are Necessary Because "This Is A War"

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This story was first published on Dec. 21, 2008. It was updated on July 31, 2009.

If your summer vacation includes travel by airplane, you may be dreading the long lines and intrusive searches that a trip through an airport checkpoint can mean these days.

Since 9/11, $40 billion has been spent to beef up airport security, with most of it going to hire 50,000 screeners who enforce rules often considered annoying and arbitrary.

But as 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl first reported last December, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has launched an effort to remake its image with a public relations campaign to convince the public that there's a good reason for the inconveniences and indignities.

Read more about the TSA's high-tech full body scanning program, which has some privacy advocates crying foul.

Go to a checkpoint and you'll find passengers bellyaching about the undressing, the unbuckling, and the taking off of their shoes - which they don't have to do in Europe or even Israel, where airline security is especially tight.

There's a lot of stress, and griping about having to pack their little liquids into baggies. They resent that each and every traveler is treated like a possible terrorist.

When Stahl asked Kip Hawley, the outgoing head of TSA, if all this is really necessary, he wanted us to know that the terrorist threat has not gone away.

"This is war. These people are trying to kill us. They got on the planes in September 11th, 2001, killed 3,000 people. And they will do it again as many times as they can," Hawley said.

"There's been a lot of criticism about people who clearly are not terrorists. The 90-year-old little old lady. …My mother, in fact…was patted down, and pulled aside. It doesn't make any sense. It's not common sense," Stahl remarked.

"You can't say to al Qaeda, 'If you give us somebody who looks like they're 90 years old or nine months old, you're going to get a free pass.' Because I guarantee you, they are watching. They notice it. And that's where they'll come," Hawley warned.

It's on the TSA's "watch floor" that analysts track thousands of flights, especially when there is a passenger on board that TSA suspects has links to terrorist groups.

At the time of Stahl's visit, Hawley said the analysts were tracking two such individuals in the air, fully aware which aircraft they were traveling on. "And we know what they were carrying with them. We know the whole scoop. Do they know? Maybe not," Hawley said. "And I think the public doesn't realize that this is for real. And that this happens every day."

But the TSA has a record of tracking and stopping innocent passengers, which has contributed to the agency's overall credibility problem. In focus groups, travelers questioned the TSA's ability to keep us safe and also complained about "pointless" security measures and rude and incompetent screeners.

"We're not out there to be fake security guards," said Ladonta Edwards, who like Gary Wilkes works at a Washington D.C. area airport.

They say screeners feel the public's hostility every day. Wilkes said he had never had anybody throw something specifically at him, but has seen objects thrown.

Passengers can be so surly, screeners feel abused and frazzled.

The TSA is sending every one of its 50,000 screeners back for retraining in how to treat the flying public. But from what 60 Minutes heard about how the public treats them, it's no wonder these guys need anger management.

"You hear, 'Well, I have a flight to catch. Hurry up. Do this, do that.' You know, you're taking your time to be nice and courteous to them, because that's your job, and they don't appreciate it," one screener told Stahl.

"Sometimes it can be so paralyzing, you can't do anything. You just want to bury your head somewhere," another said.

"The perception is we yell back. We scream. We get in combative mode. We're ready to fight," Ladonta Edwards commented.

"You're human!" Stahl pointed out.

"What do we do to change that perception?" Edwards asked.

"We're teaching people not to react to their emotions. Actually smile, still be pleasant, and send your positive emotions to that individual," Gary Wilkes added.

The price tag for all this retraining is $35 million. Then there are the new police-style uniforms to give the screeners a more authoritative look. It's all meant to help screeners deal with the challenges of the job.

"What's the most bizarre thing that you've seen someone put in their carry on and go through the screener?" Stahl asked.

"I can tell you the most bizarre [thing] that has gone through the x-ray machine. Passengers that have actually by mistake sent pets through and children, by accident," Wilkes said. "We…actually had to put signs on the machine….'Don't put your children through the x-ray machines.'"

"Infants in the carriers, they just take the whole carrier in, send it through," Edwards added.