Friday, October 19, 2007

Republicans Open For Attacks Over Airline Security

So let's be honest. The Republican side of the ticket statements to the American public that their support for the Iraq War and The Great Wall of Texas proves that they are keeping America safe. When the Democratic side of the ticket replies that by watching over civil liberties we are saving Americans from their government, we look like we think paper and lawsuits can protect people from ending up like those who jumped to their deaths out of the World Trade Center. And what we concentrate on now is not an effective counter to the 9-11 propaganda of the neo-cons. Lawsuits and civil liberties don't stop hijackers. And by keeping to such a strict form of attack of the "War on Terror," Democrats and liberals participate in the Republican strategy of using valid concerns over terrorism to push conservative agendas on spying and illegal immigrants. Years after the publishing of Lakoff's "Don't think of an elephant" we are no better at finding ways to define the argument that allow us to attack them at their weakest point.

Think of Katrina and the debacle of emergency management. That's a point that remained valid because constant media attention has kept the issue about how a hurricane devestated an American city, and the Bush Administration failed in it's duties. But we have let the neo-cons define terror threats in terms of phone calls and illegal immigrants, both old debates around which hard concerta wire got laid decades ago between both Democrats and Republicans. While attention to both issues remains important, gaining an inch in either debate will require trench warfare and an immense spilling of loyal blood. Especially without a liberal President and a liberal veto proof majority in Congress, and at least a fair and moderate Supreme Court. But will the fear that the CIA is listening to your phone call to your mother on Sunday night bring voters to the polls? Not likely. The vast majority of American voters understand they aren't likely to be the political operatives that an abuse of power could target, in a return of Hoover-style surveillance. Most of us really aren't that interesting.

What was 9-11 about? It was a group of men, who were on terror watch-lists, had expired visas, had arroused concern by the FBI for their unusal interest in flying skills. It was a low-key, well-planned, easily repeatable attack and it was real. And the Republicans are doing everything they can to make people forget that, and get the American public to think of 9-11 in terms of rogue nuclear nations and weed coming in over the border with Mexico. Why are they so energized to do so? Just like Katrina exposing the farse that Bush had made of FEMA, it shouldn't take another 9-11 style attack on our country to expose what the Bush Administration has done with airline security. Especially, since if there is ever another attack, liberal concentration on lawsuits and potential government abuse will be the Republican ticket to ducking the blame. But right now, airline security is a weak juicy underbelly to the Republican mantra that they are the ones to protect Americans.

To point out how Democratic dialogue over 9-11 has wandered onto thin ice, here's a blog from Congressman Mike Honda from California. His concerns are certainly valid and commendable, and ensuring that people aren't arbitrarily targeted due to their religion is a worthwhile Democratic goal. However, as this has become the Democratic response to 9-11 and airline security, and focuses on a very small part of the American voting public, we are left open to attacks of weakness and pandering by neo-cons. While nothing we do on the issue of airport security is likely to bring over Republican voters, swing voters are going to look closely at the two sides, and they are going to consider the Republican argument stronger. Which is unfortunate because this is an issue over which the Republicans and neo-cons have left themselves wide wide open.

Let's start with this: Rates of Failure to Find Suicide Bomb Tests by TSA.

Yesterday, Representative Kirk from Illinois rose on the House floor during open comments to bring up this subject, calling for a reveiw of airport security involving congressional leaders and the upper management of TSA. This set up and review has been coming for a long time and it has nothing to do with improving airport security, but wrapping up a federal agency as a private contract and handing it out to Republican campaign contributors. The study itself is questionable, given that it compares two of the worse airports against an airport that has been the subject of intensified training. But more importantly, the review will include the upper management of TSA and given current SSI laws which prevent airport screeners from commenting frankly in public, it holds no hope of providing accountability or insight into what is going on in airport security. However, airport passengers have begun to notice that there are fewer screeners at airports than there used to be, and job searches show that TSA offers part-time employment instead of concentrating on a full-time and steady workforce. Without full union representation, and full union rights for airport screeners, the public and Congress will find the truth elusive.

All of this will go on despite the prime opportunity this represents to assail the Republican line that private contractors are the route to take with American government. For instance:

1. Private Contractos Mass Mails SSNs to Wrong People.

TSA spokeswoman Amy von Walter said the breach was "an administrative error, and the contractor has taken steps to ensure it's not repeated." Accenture, a contractor that handles TSA personnel, sent 1,195 documents to the wrong former employees during a recent mailing, according to a letter signed by Richard Whitford, TSA assistant administrator for human capital. The documents were standard forms that are sent to employees after they leave the government. The forms often list an employee's Social Security number, birth date and salary. It's unclear how many forms had that information.

2. Private Contractors Loose Hazardous Material Trucker Data on TWO laptops.

According to a letter the TSA sent to lawmakers on Oct. 12, the laptops—both of which belonged to a TSA contractor—contain names, addresses, birthdays, commercial driver's license numbers and, in some instances, Social Security numbers of the affected truckers.

3. Go back to the use of private contractors in the founding of TSA.

Those details are contained in a federal audit that calls into question $303 million of the $741 million spent to assess and hire airport passenger screeners for the newly created Transportation Security Administration after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The audit, along with interviews with people involved in the passenger-screener contract, paints a rare and detailed portrait of how officials at the fledgling agency lost control of the spending in the pell-mell rush to hire 60,000 screeners to meet a one-year congressional deadline.

The audit, performed by the Defense Contract Audit Agency at the TSA's behest, spotlights scores of expenses: $20-an-hour temporary workers billed to the government at $48 per hour, subcontractors who signed out $5,000 in cash at a time with no supporting documents, $377,273.75 in unsubstantiated long-distance phone calls, $514,201 to rent tents that flooded in a rainstorm, $4.4 million in "no show" fees for job candidates who did not appear for tests.

The audit faulted the prime contractor, NCS Pearson Inc., which was hired by the TSA to test, interview, fingerprint, medically evaluate and pre-certify the candidates. The audit said Pearson failed to properly justify costs and improperly awarded subcontracts without competitive bidding. The audit also said the company demonstrated a "lack of management or oversight of subcontractors."

One of the audit's key revelations is that a decision to move the hiring process from Pearson's 925 U.S. private assessment centers to 150 hotels and other meeting facilities added at least $343 million to the cost of the contract, according to an estimate by Pearson. The company said it was ordered to make the change by the TSA, which said it made the decision in collaboration with Pearson.

Here we find outselves on difficult ground. While the actual testing methods used cannot be disclosed, in order to find enough acceptable hirees in the part-time worker labor pool, physical requirement tests are rumored to have been eliminated. Also rumored is it's not uncommon for the hirees to enter their own personal data into the private contractor's database for their background checks, while overseen by one contractor. Undoubtably, the contractors get paid as if they enter the data.

There's a very good report on discussing private versus federal airport security by the General Accounting Office. If you want to really understand airport security though, read what is claimed is being done by TSA management, and then the next time you fly, ask the TSOs there if it's true or not. Look around and see what's happening beyond the fact that you can't take your water bottle.

There are other weak points to go after Republican mismanagement of our nations terrorism efforts. For instance, as noted in a Senate Commerce Committee by Missouri Democrat MacCaskill, there a great lapse in security at overseas repair stations for airlines in terms of background checks. There should be honest discussion about TSA's application of SSI rules to prevent any dissent or critcism escaping the agency, and also the absurd application leading to some confusion for the public. Honestly, this is one of those cases where SSI claims are bogus. International fliers may present handwritten passports, where the expiration dates and names are all entered by hand. Countless US states allow the renewal of driver's liscenses by mail, to the point where the person has considerably aged compared to their photograph. Even if states have reasons to not renew driver's id's in five year intervals, that doesn't mean that photo identification should not be undated. Photo identification, in the age of credit card and ID theft, is appropriate as a part of airport security, even though recent intensification in this area admittedly has been aimed at finding illegal immigrants.

Airline security as a way to come out on top of the Homeland Security debate between liberals and conservatives is ripe for the taking, but it's a window that won't be open for long. It should be our issue, and it can be. Reframing the debate, as Lakoff points out, gives us a real chance to show our strengths and values, instead of always being on the defensive. With our record of standing up for civil liberties to balance out a call for a renewed focus on airline security, positions us better in the public debate. Airline security is being able to quickly match names against watch lists, and see Al Gore's "Assault on Reason" if you don't understand how important that is. Six years after 9-11 and hundreds of millions of dollars later, it's not possible for the Bush Administration to do what credit card companies do all the time. It would be done if it hadn't been used as a way to make Republican war contractors rich. Airline security is bomb sniffing dogs to prevent frontal attacks on people waiting in ticket lines outside of security. Count how many you see on a busy morning the next time you fly. Airline security is the testing for explosive traces. Next time you fly, how many people are getting their heavy sneakers and boots tested? Their bookbags tested? Ask the airport screeners about their views of their jobs and what they spend their time doing. Ask for the truth and then write your senator and congressional representative.

9-11 involved strong and trained young men using small hand weapons to hijack airplanes and fundamentally change America and our politics. Yet years later, we still let warmongering neo-cons define the debate and set us up to take the blame if it happens the next time. If there is another 9-11, they plan to make us take the blame because we are weak and don't support the war in Iraq. They will trot out how many times they focused on homeland security and they will control the debate. If we let them. Homeland Security and counterterrorism at it's most basic is airport security, and it's time to sent the Republicans to remedial class.

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