For those few readers still looking for a reason to wonder about the decision-making process at the Transportation Security Administration, we've got new opportunities.
In Las Vegas last week the TSA began testing software that will prevent its body scanners from displaying detailed images of nude bodies. Rather, the machines will display a cartoon outline of a generic human form, with anomalies highlighted so they can get a closer look.
If you think back to last year's uproar over dirty pictures, pat-downs and "Don't Touch My Junk," you might recall that this is precisely the technology that the TSA said wouldn't work. We have clear memories of the agency saying it wasn't going to change a thing. What a difference six months can make.
You might also recall that during the pat-down flap, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), a vocal critic of TSA excesses, openly encouraged airports to opt out of TSA screening and take advantage of a provision that allows airports to outsource the job to private security firms.
Under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, qualifying firms are certified by the TSA to meet certain standards, and they remain subject to TSA oversight. The TSA's website calls it an "opportunity to partner private-sector experience with our security knowledge."
As of last week, 16 airports were operating under the program, including San Francisco; Kansas City, Mo.; and Rochester, N.Y.
It is believed that interest in the program was on the increase after "Don't Touch My Junk" went viral, but TSA Administrator John Pistole has decided that the program has outlived its usefulness, declaring on the TSA website that "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." Airports that use contractor screening can continue to do so.
Mica, who is now the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, expressed shock at the change and has vowed to investigate.
Pistole's statement abruptly terminating the program not only came as a surprise to the program's creators in Congress, but it must have caught TSA's webmaster flat-footed, because the TSA site last week continued to proudly list the program's benefits, offering answers to frequently asked questions and providing guidance for airports about how to apply.
One clear beneficiary of the change in policy seems to be the American Federation of Government Employees, which issued a statement praising Pistole for "putting a stop to the privatization of this country's airport screening function." According to the union, "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."
The union also stated that Pistole issued a memo to TSA employees indicating that the move would "preserve TSA as an effective, federal counterterrorism security network," a motive that is nowhere mentioned in the TSA's public pronouncement.
We understand the TSA likes to maintain some element of unpredictability in its operations to keep the bad guys off balance, but we see no "clear or substantial advantage" in keeping the rest of us off balance, too.
So, the next time you're taking off your shoes in an airport security line, ask yourself: Are the TSA's policies driven solely by security considerations, or do politics and public perceptions play a role?