Monday, December 28, 2009

Be On the Lookout For Portland, Oregon or Why the TSA is a farce.

" [O]ur government is incompetent and it doesn't matter whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge, even as the latter circle the wagons. This many years after 9/11 and we still can't get it down that someone on a terrorist watch list should have extra screening?"--Taylor Marsh. (

"Mr Abdulmutallab's file was marked for a full investigation should he ever reapply for a visa.

His name was also added to the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (Tide) watch list, which contains the details of around 550,000 people with suspected connections to terrorism but does not prevent them from flying internationally." BBC News (

In these two quotes one has the gist of why TIDE, the so called terrorist watch list, is a non-starter. Look at that number hard; the government is supposed to be watching half a million individuals. That is near the population of Portland, Oregon in 1998. ( Name one democratic institution that could accomplish such a herculean task with even an iota of competence. Name one democratic nation that would even attempt such a Sisyphean task other than the U.S.

After the 9/11 attacks, the conventional wisdom wanted an organization like DHS in the worst way; and that is exactly what we as a nation got. George W. Bush did not want DHS in the first place, so when forced to create the Department, he made it as dysfunctional as possible. Remember that Bernard Kerrick came within inches of being the first Head of DHS. In a way, it is a shame he did not get the nod. A mobbed-up incompetent at least would have a good excuse for his failure to deliver. As it was, the U.S. got Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff. Janet Napolitano continues in the fine tradition of political trivia quiz answers that run DHS.

The problems with DHS go deeper than the political mediocrities that run it. There is a fatal flaw in the very design of the Department; it is just too big. The shear mass of DHS, the multitude of agencies that it oversees, are too much for even the best of leaders. DHS is very much a remake of that 1958 cult movie classic The Blob. Under its purview are TSA, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration Customs Enforcement, The Secret Service, FEMA, and the Coast Guard. Thus DHS is less an organic whole than a metastatic cancer.

DHS is systemically unable to perform its multiple mandates. It cannot execute its deliverables. It is going in too many directions at once. As a governmental institution, DHS is very much like the old H.E.W. Health Education and Welfare workers used to describe their (dis)organization as Halls of Eternal Warfare. When Education was peeled off as its own department, Health and Human Services, as the new department was called, was a less unfocused and dysfunctional department.

Truth be told, it is a good thing that DHS is such an entropic mess; the Department, if it was ever functional, would be an existential threat to democracy. The very idea of the "homeland" has a creepy authoritarian feel to it. It carries a faint whiff of fascism, a slight flavor of Nazi toxin.

Take a good, long, hard look at the Continental United States. Look at the east, gulf and west coasts, look at the northern and southern borders, how do you defend it? How do you lock down the myriad Ports of Entry, the rivers, lakes and streams? How do you keep people from crossing the trackless desserts to the south or the deep woods to the north? How do you secure the Sea Ports, the Air Ports, the Bus Stations and the Rail Stations? How do you do this without shredding freedom of movement? You don't.

You certainly cannot do it with a laundry list of "persons of interests" that numbers more than half a million. Abdulmutallab was able to waltz onto a plane because our security apparatus was flooded with white noise. There is no way even the most vigilant of TSA employees could possibly be on the lookout for a list of names the size of Portland, Oregon. That is not a workable scenario; it is an absurdity that even Kafka could not dream up on one of his more depressive days.

The only way one makes an institution like DHS "work" is if you copy the writ, strategy and tactics of the NKVD or the Gestapo. You would have to toss our constitutional protections out the window. You would have to turn just about every U.S. citizen into a snitch like the East German Stasi used to do. Granted with Gitmo, FISA, Extraordinary Rendition, Sneak and Peek Warrants, and Military Tribunals the U.S. is well on its way to such a state, but is that really where we want to go? Are we really going to surrender our unalienable rights to a bunch of nere-do-well nihilists? Are we really going to submit our freedoms to the tender mercies of some modern day Visigoths who hide behind the religion of Islam? Will we really concede our freedoms to bunch of feckless bureaucrats for a mumbled promise of security? Remember the words of the third President of the United States "Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." The system that really worked on that fateful flight was of an aware and proactive citizenry. Given a choice which would you prefer as your security DHS, or a sucker punch to a terrorist delivered by a pissed-off Missouri gal of Scotch-Irish ancestry? Go with the Missouri gal every day of the week and twice on Sunday.
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