The TSA: an illusion of security

Some of you may have heard the reports about the Transportation Security Administration’s failure to pass surprise inspections that tested their effectiveness at stopping threats. If you haven’t, allow me to fill you in.

What’s significant here is the scope of their failure. According to ABC news, the TSA allowed 67 out of 70 possible threats to sneak by their airport checkpoints unnoticed. That’s a 95 percent failure rate. But how can the TSA be so ineffectual at what is literally their only job? That’s what we’re here to find out.

Homeland Security personnel dressed as civilians walked into dozens of airports all over the country and were able to smuggle everything from mock explosives to weapons past the security checkpoints. These “red teams” were part of Homeland Security’s push to identify the TSA’s most serious weak points.

The TSA claims that the numbers in reports like these never look good out of context, with some officials even going as far as to claim the Homeland Security agents were “super terrorists” who pushed every aspect of the TSA’s operation to the limit.

But isn’t that the point?

In fairness, the TSA say they’ve already corrected some of the security lapses that led to their procedural failings, but it’s very unfeasible that they have already corrected all or even most of them.

A look through the TSA’s website reveals that they’ve installed new equipment such as the Advanced Imaging Technology scanner. They’ve also expanded their new two-lane checkpoints to 2,640 square feet, which the agency says will create more space for both passengers and security personnel.

However, these improvements were only made at the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport, with no mention in the press release of similar improvements being made in any other locations. There are no speech transcripts, testimonies, or press releases available on the TSA’s website from the month the story broke that address their security failures.

Peter Neffenger, Ambassador for the TSA, told the House Committee on Homeland Security he was “greatly disturbed” by the TSA’s failure rate on the undercover tests. Neffenger cited DHS Secretary Johnson’s ten-step plan to improve the TSA’s methods and increase their effectiveness.

According to the transcript of Neffenger’s testimony to congress, “The assessments are designed to determine the proximate root causes of these failures and provide effective system-wide solutions.” When the testimony was given, Neffenger promised a “systemic review” to identify vulnerabilities across the aviation security system as a whole.

The rhetoric coming from TSA brass may sound reassuring, but the agency’s actions in response to its security lapses have been baffling. The TSA spent nearly $50,000 on an app that splits waiting passengers into two lines with a simple right swipe/left swipe function – a job that could easily have been done without the assistance of an iPad.

According to Politico, fewer passengers are going to be funneled through the less-invasive PreCheck lines in an effort to be more thorough, but many criticize this plan as slowing down an already slow process. There has also been talk of increasing the presence of drug-sniffing dogs and bomb-residue detecting hand swabs.

Representative Bennie Thompson of the House Homeland Security Committee told Politico that he supports adding more manual screening and increasing the selectiveness of expedited treatment, but he’s also worried about how this shift would look in the wake of the TSA’s efforts to speed the screening process for the millions of passengers they see every day.

It has become clear that we as a nation are going to have to make the choice between spending more time in airport lines, and increasing the risk of someone dangerous getting through the checkpoints.

While submitting to more screenings may not seem ideal, it’s hard not to argue that something must be done about the TSA’s security lapses. If the TSA are going to change up their act in an effort to improve, it’s up to us as passengers to be ready for it.

An effort to reach the TSA at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport for comment was unsuccessful.

Photo source:

The Panama Papers: following the money

The reason why the Panama Papers are more than just a news story is because of their tie to history. Financial scandals may not be as sexy as those relating to war, but the fact of the matter is the Panama Papers are much larger in size and scope than the Pentagon Papers ever were.

Let’s start off with the basic facts: Eleven-point-five million documents were leaked from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, the world’s fourth largest offshore law firm, incriminating 143 politicians and 12 world leaders both former and current in the hiding of personal assets in offshore tax havens.

I admit the numerical details can be incredibly dry. Simply put,  finance isn’t sexy. But its implications are. Vladimir Putin himself was implicated in the hiding of two billion dollars in offshore funds, and the Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned his post within hours of the story breaking. Gunnlaugsson stepped down due to his failure to disclose companies controlled by he and his wife that were being overseen by the Icelandic government.

Here’s where the story goes from numbers to consequences. When we start to see high-level change in the world of politics, you can be sure that there is something more going on besides some accounting  tom-foolery. And this is a story that is sure to be breaking not only this week, but over the next few months and possibly years.

I know it may be easy for many people to ask “Why should I care?” but it’s important to remember that wrongdoing, no matter how benign it may seem, is still wrong. And the committers of those wrongdoings need to be held accountable, especially if they’re elected officials.

Forty years of records were leaked, more than two terabytes of data, all vetted by a coalition of approximately 100 professional journalistic organizations. This massive professional partnership has led some to speculate whether the days of “amateur” leaks, such as the Wikileaks scandal, are behind us.

What’s truly amazing however, is the sheer number of people implicated in the documents. In addition to Putin and Gunnlaugsson, the papers contain information on Pakistan’s prime minister, the President of Ukraine, Argentina’s president, the King of Saudi Arabia, six members of the UK’s House of Lords, eight families associated with the supreme ruling body in China and dozens of Brazilians, according to The Guardian.

Digging deeper into this story revealed another layer of information. According to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the documents also name at least 33 people and companies “blacklisted by the U.S. government.” Among the list of names are people that do business with terrorist organizations and Mexican drug lords. And it isn’t just people that were identified in the documents. Countries such as North Korea and Iran were also implicated.

We know the names and positions of some of the key players in this story, but what exactly did they do? Let’s break down the involvement of four people named in the list earlier in the article.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif:

According to the Wall Street Journal, three of Sharif’s children were linked to offshore companies. They were either owners of the companies or had the right to authorize transactions for them. The records indicated the family owned London real estate in prime locations and that the companies used the properties as collateral to secure a loan worth millions of pounds.

President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko: reports that Poroshenko set up a secret offshore company, Prime Asset Partners Ltd., in the British Virgin Islands. To make matters worse, these dealings took place during the period of conflict between Ukraine and Russia that left many Ukrainian solders dead. According to the documents, Poroshenko was listed as the only shareholder of Prime Asset Partners Ltd.

Argentina’s president, Mauricio Macri:

Reports from the BBC show Mr. Macri was listed as director of an offshore company in the Bahamas. Fleg Trading, the company in question, was under his control from 1998 until 2009. Macri kept the company off his books as Mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007, and then again as president in 2015. His office released word Tuesday saying Mr. Macri’s family did in fact own a offshore business group, the acquisition of which was facilitated by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia:

An article on reported that King Salman used an offshore British Virgin Island company to take out mortgages on London-based luxury homes. In total, the mortgages for those homes totaled $34 million. Now to be clear, the papers do not mention King Salman’s specific role in the scandal, but the mortgages are mentioned to be “in relation to” him and his assets.

This crisis is truly global, with over 200 countries and territories being identified in the leak. According to the ICIJ’s website, Mossack Fonseca is involved in Africa’s diamond trade, provides services to Middle Eastern royalty, and has dealings in the international art market along with other businesses that thrive on secrecy. While most of their clients and transactions are law abiding, it’s clearly worth highlighting the few that are not.