Counter-Terrorism: Red Team Secrets You Don't Want To Know


December 20, 2010: The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is criticized for their aggressive security at airports, where even young children and elderly people in wheelchairs are subjected to intrusive physical searches. Aside from the fact that this has driven an increasing number of people away from commercial aviation, it has also proved to be embarrassingly ineffective. This can be seen by those times when people admit that they accidentally carried weapons (knives or pistols) through the TSA security checks. Even more embarrassing are the "red team" tests the government uses to measure the effectiveness of the TSA airport security. While the results of these tests (where agents posing as passengers attempt to get weapons onto aircraft) are kept secret, the results often leak. Apparently even the government officials with access to the test results were outraged at the fact that the TSA screeners miss weapons most of the time. What hasn't been leaked are the methods the red teams use to conceal guns and knives. But the stories from people who accidentally left their pistol under some bit of electronic gear, or otherwise stowed a weapon in a certain fashion, indicates that you don't have to be too clever to outwit the TSA.

Thus there's been a lot of criticism of TSA management, especially for favoring form over substance. Often, the TSA is its own worst enemy. For example, a year ago the TSA suffered a major, and embarrassing, intelligence disaster when they posted their Screening Management Standard Operating Procedure manual on their website. This is a classified document, containing details of procedures used to check people entering airports. The classified data was blacked out, but those who did this forgot (or were unaware) that these PDF files can be downloaded and anyone with minimal PDF creation skills can remove the "black out" image to reveal the text beneath.

The data revealed was not all that secret to foreign intelligence agencies, who could have deduced the procedures by simply having operatives observe TSA screeners at work. For example, holders of certain passports (from , Iran, North Korea, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen and Algeria) are subject to additional scrutiny. Then there is the list of people who are not screened at all (foreign VIPs and their families, or at least spouses and children under 12). It also confirmed that diplomatic pouches (cargo travelling under diplomatic immunity) are not searched. Other nations have different exemptions or, and the exemptions often changes. But now, because of an ignorant TSA employee, key secrets are secret no more.

There have been calls for reforms at the TSA, but so far, no one in government is willing to take this on. From a political point of view, it's considered safer to suffer the embarrassment, and acknowledge that fact that it's much more dangerous to your re-election chances if you get involved in some kind of TSA reform effort that doesn't work.





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