Bruce Schneier hands former TSA boss his ass

As the Economist's debate between Bruce Schneier and former TSA boss Kip Hawley draws to a close, it's clear that Schneier has crushed Hawley. All of Hawley's best arguments sum up to "Someone somewhere did something bad, and if he'd tried it on us, we would have caught him." His closing clincher? They heard a bad guy was getting on a plane somewhere. The figured out which plane, stopped it from taking off and "resolved" the situation. Seeing as there were no recent reports of foiled terrorist plots, I'm guessing the "resolution" was "it turned out we made a mistake." But Hawley's takeaway is: "look at how fast our mistake was!" (Thanks, Dee!)


  1. To me, Hawley’s first two closing remarks boil down to:
    1. There is a definitive set of facts that only I can see. (“…angry travellers who just don’t see the hidden world of real plots and effective security measures.”)
    2. If you disagree it’s because you don’t know what you’re talking about. (“The fault-line in public support of airport security does not break neatly along political lines; rather it appears to me that the rift is between the many people who are past listening and those who are not.”)

    You hear this same framework all the time, particularly from fringe politicians.  It comes across as both arrogant and intentionally ignorant; which may explain why it’s rarely effective.

    As much as I dislike the TSA, why couldn’t the TSA have a more competent rep than Hawley?

    1. They couldn’t find anyone more competent. There was one guy, but he insisted on strip searching Schneier’s firstborn beforehand.

    2. I wonder if the frustration of being associated with America’s lamest ‘security’ apparatus is getting to him(see also, when TSA screeners started wearing cop costumes in an attempt to impersonate people with vaguely greater public status…)

      His ‘hidden world of real plots and effective security measures’ appears to exist primarily in his imagination. Probably the same daydream where he is a studly secret agent, doing things too cool not to keep classified.

      1. see also, when TSA screeners started wearing cop costumes in an attempt to impersonate people with vaguely greater public status

        Given the current public perception of law enforcement, that’s just sad.

    3. Bruce did a great job — which isn’t surprising, of course! — but I found the whole exchange most disheartening.

      The structure of Hawley’s arguments is exactly the same that we see whenever public policy isn’t based upon any kind of evidence-based process (see: Failed War On Drugs). The exchanges are always predictable.

      Critic: The policy isn’t working — look at this Huge Body of Evidence.

      Brain-dead bureaucrat: But look at this anecdote!

      C: Please, rationally address the above-mentioned HBE.

      BDB: Well look at this anecdote!

      C: But what evidence…

      BDB: Look at this one!

      C: Hello? Is there anyone home?

      BDB: Look at this.

      If the conversation ever moves beyond a senseless collection of random anecdotes, facts, and figures, it is only to hear the BDB claim authority, telling the critics that they just don’t understand the situation. The Huge Body of Evidence is never rationally addressed.

      This leads to the laughable statement that “we’ve made mistakes” (note past-tense). If they actually looked at the evidence, they would see that they’re still making mistakes (see: porno-scanners).

      Very disheartening. If the person you’re engaged in dialog with can’t even hear what you’re saying, there is no progress. I found it very ironic that Hawley said, in his closing remarks that we “need to find a way forward.” Yes! We do! But we can’t do that until you start, well, listening to valid criticisms.

        1. Yeah I know. Those stupid greenies, just won’t look at all the evidence that Global Warming is all a scam thought up by Margaret Thatcher and propagated by Governments to keep the poor down!
          (Sorry, this is an actual argument I read in a nutcase newspaper recently in Melbourne).

    1. It’s actually a rather touching humanitarian gesture. The TSA guy had been looking all over for his ass; but was having no luck finding it. It was nice of Schneier to help him out.

      1. And that map he had wasn’t helping at all. Schneier was just being a good Samaritan. 

  2. Frankly Hawley lost this thing the minute he started listing supposed success stories. Most of them had no connection to airport security at all, and were successes for exactly the sort of security Schneier advocates. The only one that had any involvement from airport security (the underwear bomber) is in fact a massive failure on their part. The guy made it on the plane with his bomb and initiated detonation. The fact that the day was saved by a shit bomb doesn’t make it a magical win for Hawley’s team. 

    I’m surprised noone directly involved with the debate pointed this out. I’m also surprised that, after Hawley waxed poetic about the supreme destructive power of Al Qaeda’s liquid super bombs, noone called him on his bullshit. Schneier himself was instrumental in publicizing how damned near impossible it is for a bomb of that type to ever be used in that fashion.

    1.  Actually it is a win for airport security.  The security was sufficient to stop an effective bomb from getting on board – a kilo of C-4 and a blasting cap would have been caught (or at least the attacker thought it would, which comes out to the same thing in this case), which forced the attacker to choose an ineffective bomb.

      In the absence of effective(ish) airport security, the attacker would quite likely have felt confident packing a truly effective bomb, and would probably have gotten it on board successfully.

      1. That’s a stretch. The bombers in ability to properly use his detonator or create a more effective one is more a factor of his lack of ability not any deterant created by the TSA.

        More over your ignoring the numerous drills where the TSA failed to stop decoy bombs and real bomb components even when they knew what was coming through when and where. 
        Hell my own brother spent several years routinely flying on civilian flights with a blasting cap suitable for detonating C-4 and PETN on his key chain before the thing was confiscated by military customs at an airforce base. (For the record he was not aware that it was live.)

        1. Well I’m certainly not claiming the fellow was competent!  I suspect suicide bombers don’t tend to be the brightest.

          You may be right that he would have had a decent chance of success getting a more conventional, and reliable, bomb through – but I would argue that a) he didn’t know that, which is just as good in this case, and b) the tests you cite aren’t necessarily representative, as the people carrying the test materials would probably not have been terribly nervous, as they’d be carrying a get-out-of-jail-free card.

          In any case, I stand by my argument that security measures don’t have to be perfect, they can still work by forcing the attacker to adopt less effective tactics (edit – or tricking him into doing so, depending how you look at it).

          1.  ” as the people carrying the test materials would probably not have been terribly nervous,”

            I never understood that.  They aren’t drug mules or something, they are suicide bombers.  If I was planning on taking my life and many other I think I’d of made enough peace with whatever F’d up reasons there were for it all to not get second thoughts while going through with it.

            Perhaps terrorists should start doing better psychological profiling when looking for recruits.

        2. “The bombers in ability to properly use his detonator or create a more effective one is more a factor of his lack of ability not any deterant created by the TSA.”

          No, that lack of ability was derived from his inability to get enough explosives on board. Explosives are not magic. A single grain of C4 will not do a job that takes a kilo of it. 

        3.  I should also add – I’m not suggesting that the underwear bomb incident was specifically a success of post-9/11 security measures.  Pre-9/11 airport security might very well have caught an effective bomb, and might well have been sufficient to drive him to trying his ridiculous gitch-bomb.

          I’m just saying it was a victory for airport security on some level.

          Incidentally, it sounds like your brother was lucky he tried to enter an airforce base – they might have saved him from a very painful wardrobe malfunction…

          1. Yeah he was pretty relieved. Apparently the detonator was given to him by a Marine instructor after he passed an explosives training course. It was supposed to be a dud, but somewhere along the line it got crossed with a live one.

            Funny enough the hollowed out inert detonator he replaced it with was almost immediately confiscated by the TSA.

      2. You would make a good replacement. 9/11? A huge success for airport security, after all, they weren’t able to smuggle a nuclear bomb aboard.  

        1. Airport security was largely irrelevant to 9/11, and current airport security measures would be irrelevant to an attempt to repeat it  – the weapons (box cutter knives, intimidation, and the assumption by passengers that they were about to suffer nothing more than an unscheduled layover in Cuba, so it wasn’t worth risking getting stabbed) were and remain easy to get past security.  The difference is that the passengers aren’t each carrying the last item onto the plane anymore.

          To paraphrase Schneier – the only two things that would prevent a repeat of that attack are that passengers now know to fight back, and that cockpit doors are reinforced and kept locked in flight.  Neither is an airport security measure.

  3. Huge body of evidence versus anecdote. Hmmm… I think the TSA is doing a great job, here’s my personal anecdote as proof:

    When flying from SFO to LAX, I started to get into a rather fast moving line – going through the standard metal detectors. The agent helpfully suggested: “hey why don’t you go into the other line … no waiting!” And she was right, a whole bunch of agents standing around their nude scanners – looking bored. I opted out. So, they felt me up. Took half an hour. Meanwhile, the other line moved right along. The more experienced travelers knew to avoid that “other line”. Which line do you think a bomber would take?

    So, I’m opting out of flying. Going to buy a car to drive to visit family in the midwest. It’s not about the inconvenience. It’s about the gauntlet of stupidity. Which means the TSA is doing great job! Eliminating flyers will lead to eliminating flying terrorists. Hooray! 

  4. Just throw the whole thing out and everyone fly as you wish. Good luck! It is hard to prove a negative. Maybe banks that have never been robbed should just throw out their alarm systems. And, really, the reason men have bombs in their shoes and underwear is that they are forced into insane options because of the SECURITY. Airlines should offer two flights. The quick-board flights with no security checks and the TSA flights with the slow-boarding option. I’ll take my chances on the TSA flights, fully body scans and all.

    1. This isn’t an ultimatum. There’s no need to have absurd levels of “security” or no security. Middle ground does exist and in this case it should be the option used.

      Regarding your point about underwear bombers and shoe bombers. It’s wrong. They weren’t forced into that option, they just as easily could have taken a real bomb to a stadium, a crowded train station or even the security checkpoint at the airport. The reason they didn’t is because they were incompetent idiots.

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