In late October, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which handles airport security in the US, began offering passengers a choice: either submit to being imaged by the new, invasive, "backscatter" scanners, which show your genitals to the security officers manning the machine, or risk having your junk touched by those same officers. New regulations require that the TSA perform "enhanced pat-downs"—which some critics have described as "groping"—of anyone who declines the controversial full-body scan. If you decline both procedures, as Californian John Tyner did this week, you can be investigated and face fines up to $11,000

Although a recent poll showed that over 80 percent of Americans are okay with the new scanners, the forced choice between the "naked" imaging and the new pat-downs has a vocal group of fliers and airport security reformers up in arms. On October 29, Atlantic magazine writer Jeff Goldberg, who's cultivated a sort of side-career as an airport security reformer, wrote a hilarious blog post about his experience with the new pat-downs. The post, in which Goldberg banters with TSA officers about his testicles, was widely circulated on the Internet. But it wasn't until John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner taped his own encounter with the TSA that the story really took off, fuelling criticism of the TSA across the media and political spectrum.

My colleague Kevin Drum is tired of hearing the complaints. So on Monday, he issued a challenge

[W]hat I haven't seen is an informed take on what airport security ought to look like. We all hate taking off our shoes and pulling out our laptops and being limited to three ounces of liquid and not being allowed to meet people at the gate anymore — we hate all of that. But if it's all useless, what should we do instead? Shouldn't someone write that article?

Ever dutiful, I set out to complete Kevin's assignment. I asked Goldberg, security expert Bruce Schneier, and airline pilot (and security critic) Patrick Smith about what their ideal airport security schemes would look like. After speaking to them, I think Kevin is missing the point: the elimination of existing useless security procedures is the heart of the plan. It's not about doing something "instead" of the current system—it's about not doing things that are wasting money and time and not making us safer. It's quite possible that we're already as safe as we're going to get—and every subsequent airport security "improvement" is just reducing our freedom without improving security.

Schneier is famous for explaining that "exactly two things have made us safer since 9/11: reinforcing the cockpit door and convincing passengers they need to fight back. Everything else is a waste of money." All three experts favor scrapping most of the security measures that people hate—and not necessarily replacing them with anything. Ideally, the money that was saved wouldn't be spent on airport security at all: it would be spent on trying to stop terrorists before they got to the airport. That means better-funding law enforcement and intelligence.

All that said, Goldberg, Schneier, and Smith did offer some suggestions for new or different security procedures to use "instead" of the methods we're currently relying on. Here are a few options:

  1. Enhance baggage security. All three experts mentioned this. Baggage is where the greatest danger is, and where airport security resources should be focused. "Right now the biggest threats are still bombs and explosives. That's the path of least resistance," Smith says. "All luggage going on passenger planes should be treated the same, and scanned," says Schneier. Making sure that a passenger's bags never, ever fly if he doesn't is also key. And we could do more. Here's an excerpt from a 2006 article by Schneier:
    If I were investing in security, I would fund significant research into computer-assisted screening equipment for both checked and carry-on bags, but wouldn't spend a lot of money on invasive screening procedures and secondary screening. I would much rather have well-trained security personnel wandering around the airport, both in and out of uniform, looking for suspicious actions.
  2. Pay more attention to airport workers. Schneier was an early advocate of background checks and increased screening for airport employees. If you're screening pilots, it's "completely absurd" not to screen the guy who is loading food on the plane, Smith says. This has improved in recent years, and the TSA now conducts random screening of airport employees. That could be broadened. Goldberg suggested considering biometric IDs for airport employees.
  3. Randomize enhanced screening. Schneier has suggested that any "enhanced" screening of passengers be "truly random." That means that while the majority of passengers wouldn't face the invasive security checks they face now, every passenger would face the risk of a thorough search. Terrorists can't avoid or plan for truly random enhanced searches, like they can with protocol-, background-, and profiling-based searches. You don't want terrorists to be able to plan their way around your security. You want them to have to get lucky.
  4. Make security lines less vulnerable. The huge lines of people waiting in airport security lines are themselves a huge target. "If you want to terrorize the country, you don't have to take down an airplane, you can just take people down in a security line," Goldberg says. "All these people packed in tightly waiting and waiting and waiting... The next day all the airports in America will be closed." Moving people through security quickly and efficiently will make the security lines themselves less of a target. 
  5. The Israeli model is unworkable on a large scale. But that doesn't mean you can't replicate parts of it. Some people believe that America should move to the Israeli model of airport security: intense screening based on asking passengers many, many questions and assessing their responses. But the experts I spoke to don't think that plan is workable in the United States. Israel has one medium-sized airport, and it would be next to impossible (and incredibly expensive) to enact Israeli-style security procedures in a country the size of the US. But that doesn't mean you couldn't have more (well-trained!) people observing passengers' behavior or asking key questions of randomly selected passengers. 

Indiana National Guard Soldiers of Battery A, 2nd Battalion, 150th Field Artillery Regiment, headquartered in Greencastle, Ind., work together to smoothly execute a fire mission using their M777 Howitzers at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center in central Indiana, Thursday, Nov. 4. The Indiana Guard is one of the first states to be issued this piece of equipment. Photo via U.S. Army.

Ever wonder what happened to the big ol' "Mission Accomplished" banner that hung behind George W. Bush during his carrier-deck Iraq victory speech? Wonder no more. Via the USA Today:

As former president George W. Bush broke ground Tuesday in Dallas for his presidential library, officials weighed whether or not to display one item that few know is being held in storage there: the "Mission Accomplished" banner...

The banner now sits in storage and will become part of the library's collection. A decision on how or whether to display the red-white-and-blue banner hasn't been made, said Alan Lowe, director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

No word yet on whether the Bush Library will house any waterboards, yellowcake uranium, or notes from secret energy-industry meetings. But hopefully this golf club will be there:


Wednesday was judgment day in the Tennessee legal battle over a proposed Islamic community center in Murfreesboro. As I've noted before, the trial had been something of a circus, with the plaintiff's attorney, Joe Brandon Jr., asking local officials their views on pedophilia and spousal abuse, and warning that area Muslims are planning to, essentially, transform Middle Tennessee into Helmand Province. Here's his characteristically passionate closing argument:

"If this has been a circus, it's because they pitched a tent and brought the clowns," Brandon said. Brandon warned the court if they did not step in and stop the mosque that we might have another Waco on our hands. "Look at David Koresh. He had a religious institution until the government decided to load up their missile and blowed it up and killed everybody."

Terrifying. But also, ultimately, unpersuasive: after three months of testimony, chancellor Robert Corlew ruled that construction of the mosque could continue as planned, and that the city had acted properly in approving the project in the first place. Mischief managed! Or maybe not.

People who want to put terrorists in prison—or execute them—(and I think most of us want one or the other) should ask themselves one thing: would they rather be Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani or Omar Khadr?

Last month, Khadr, a Canadian-born Guantanamo detainee who was captured in Afghanistan as a teenager, agreed to a plea deal under the military commissions process. A military jury subsequently sentenced him to 40 years in prison for a number of crimes, including throwing the grenade that killed Army Sgt. Christopher Speer in 2002. The 40-year sentence was just for show: Khadr is likely to be released soon after he is returned to Canada next year. Ghailani's fate will be quite different. On Wednesday, a federal jury in New York convicted him of conspiracy for his role in the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. While Khadr will be out of prison by 2012, Ghailani will almost certainly spend at least the next two decades—and possibly the rest of his life—in federal prison.

Most reasonable people would rather serve Khadr's year-or-so in Gitmo than Ghailani's 20 years to life. But because the jury acquitted Ghailani of 280 other counts of conspiracy and murder, conservatives and major media outlets are united today in suggesting that the outcome of the trial—the first of a Gitmo detainee in civilian courts—casts doubt on the prospect of future civilian trials. The current conventional wisdom seems to hold that the outcome of the Ghailani trial proves that military commissions are a superior method of punishing terrorists. The record shows the opposite is true.

Khadr is not the only person to pass through the military commissions only to face a sentence that's light compared to Ghailani's. Australian David Hicks and Salim Hamdam, Osama bin Laden's driver, have both already been released after being convicted in military commissions of providing material support for terrorism. John Walker Lindh—an American who was convicted of similar material support charges in federal court—is currently serving a 20-year sentence. In total, the military commissions have convicted just five people since 9/11. Only one of them is serving a sentence longer than Ghailani's.*

A federal trial provides far more effective closure than a military commissions proceeding. "The federal court trial has provided final resolution for this particular case," says Dixon Osburn, the Law and Security director for Human Rights First. "It gives the verdict a level of legit that no verdict in commission system has." In other words, the idea of human rights protestors standing outside of the SuperMax facility in Florence, Colorado (or wherever Ghailani ends up) to protest Ghailani's imprisonment seems unlikely, to say the least. Ghailani has been convicted in a fair and open court: now he will go away for a long, long time.

For its final hearing of this legislative session, the House Science and Technology Committee chose an appropriate topic. Dubbed "A Rational Discussion of Climate Change: the Science, the Evidence, the Response," Wednesday's hearing likely marked the last time a congressional committee convenes a "rational" dialogue on global warming for the next two years—or however long the GOP controls the House. It was the swan song for subcommittee chair Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who is retiring this year. And it was also the last hurrah for Rep. Bob Inglis (R-SC), who lost his primary bid to a tea party candidate last spring. (See David Corn's eye-opening interview with him here.)

Unburdened by the prospect of another campaign, Inglis, in this final hearing, spared no scorn for climate change deniers in his own party and beyond, suggesting that they continue to ignore global warming at their own peril. "I would also suggest to my free enterprise colleagues—especially conservatives here—whether you think it’s all a bunch of hooey, what we've talked about in this committee, the Chinese don’t," the South Carolina Republican said in his opening remarks. "And they plan on eating our lunch in this next century." (ClimateWire covered the comments here.)

He continued lobbing criticism at climate skeptics:

There are people who make a lot of money on talk radio and talk TV saying a lot of things. They slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night, and they’re experts on climate change. They substitute their judgment for people who have Ph.D.s and work tirelessly.

Inglis is referring, of course, to the series of commercials for the hotel chain in which a white guy magically develops the ability to rap, another guy ends up on Jeopardy, and a clown gives advice to a bull rider—all because they got smarter due to a good night's rest at the Holiday Inn Express.

The difference on the subject between Inglis and Rep. Ralph Hall, the 87-year-old Texas Republican expected to take up the chairmanship of the committee next year, couldn't be more drastic. In his opening statement, Hall said that "reasonable people have serious questions about our knowledge of the state of the science." He also accused the scientific community of having a "dishonest undercurrent."

Accordingly, Inglis warned scientists of what to expect in the next two years:

I'd encourage scientists who are listening out there to get ready for the hearings that are coming up in the next Congress. Those will be difficult hearings for climate scientists. But, I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach. Don’t come here defensively.

Probably decent advice. Half of the incoming GOP House members flatly deny that the planet is warming. Only four remaining House Republicans have openly accepted the science of climate change, after more moderate members like Inglis were sent packing.

The 2010 midterms are barely in the rear-view, the 111th Congress' lame-duck session just begun, but already the handicapping for the 2012 congressional races is underway. As Politico reports today, senators up for re-election in 2012 are drumming up cash, laying the groundwork for their campaigns, mulling their party affiliations, or weighing whether to even bother running again.

For instance, a pair of longtime Senate Democrats, North Dakota's Kent Conrad and New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, are considering hanging up their spurs and retiring, Politico reports. Then there are Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, both of whom face questions about which party they'll run with in 2012. McCaskill's re-election challenge is a steep one, simply because she's a Democrat in a state that didn't back Obama in 2008 and voted in a Republican senator in the midterms. Now, McCaskill has made no statements suggesting she'd run as an independent in 2012, but she's definitely been playing up her independent streak. "I think that’s the message that I got to make sure that Missourians understand: that I haven’t been afraid to differ from Harry Reid; I have not been afraid to take on Nancy Pelosi; I have not been afraid to tell the president he is wrong," McCaskill said. "And that I have been the independent that I think most Missourians want."

Meanwhile, Lieberman's affiliation is always up in the air. Currently an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Lieberman said three different scenarios—a GOP candidacy, Democratic candidacy, or even retirement—"are still alive."

The stakes for 2012 are, of course, especially high with the GOP angling to win back the Senate, and thus control the entire Congress. Here's more from Politico:

Leaders from both parties are urging a more aggressive strategy for senators to be more visible back home and calling on senators to tout the benefits of bills they’ve pushed. They’ve also been warned not to take any challenger—whether in a primary or general election—for granted.

Democrats clearly have the more challenging playing field, defending 21 incumbents, along with two independents who caucus with them. The GOP only has nine seats to worry about...

Republicans, who watched incumbents Lisa Murkowski and Bob Bennett lose primaries, seem more concerned about intraparty challenges going into 2012. Texas Sen. John Cornyn is already warning his nine incumbents to begin preparing for an influx of candidates who may challenge them in primaries.

Already, tea party activists are making noise about taking down moderate Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe in her 2012 primary.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is not the guy to invite to a right-wing legal confab is you want to whip up the crowd with some red meat. His delivery is always low-key, whether he's saying nice things about President Obama, as he did at the Federalist Society's 2008 national lawyers convention, or whether he's laying out the historic proportions of his party's midterm victory, as he did this week at the conservative legal group's latest DC conference. That's not to say he can't get in a few jabs in his own quiet way, and he won enthusiastic responses from the assembled lawyers, many of whom are Bush administration refugees and others whose aspirations for federal judgeships hinge on the 2012 election. McConnell told them that two years ago, when he last spoke at this gathering, James Carville was working on a book declaring that the Democrats would be the majority party for the next 40 years. "The mainstream media was asking whether the Republican Party would be around in 2010," he said, deadpanning. "Now, some people are wondering whether the mainstream media will be around in 2012."

But even after laying out some staggering statistics showing just how thoroughly his party trounced the Democrats in the midterms, McConnell wasn't making any grand pronouncements about the return of GOP dominance. Instead, he said, "That doesn't mean the Republicans should gloat. Republicans should realize who's in charge and that's the American people...Democrats have ignored the people for two years. Now that we've won back the voters trust, we will not be guilty of the same." He said that he and incoming House Speaker John Boehner "want to make sure we don't misread the mandate. We understand that this election was not about us. It was about them."

At the Federalist Society conference in 2008, McConnell had expressed an interest in working with Obama on the "big things" they agreed on, like entitlement reform and energy policy. Today, the man who recently said the GOP's main legislative goal is to make Obama a one-term president, also said he hoped to work with the administration on reducing energy dependence, reducing the trade deficit, and ensuring that the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq got all the support they needed. But he also insisted that the election showed that Obama needed to move towards the GOP on their agenda, and not the other way around. His first priority for the new Congress? To repeal and replace health care reform.

McConnell made it sound like health care reform wasn't just about getting people insurance coverage and making sure they had access to care, but instead was about a much bigger principal. He insisted that if the courts uphold the legislation's individual mandate—the requirement that everyone buy insurance or pay a penalty—then the country would be in for much bigger trouble, because "there will be no meaningful limit on the federal government." And the federal government, according to McConnell is already way more powerful than it should be, and his party was set to rein in that power, mainly by freezing and cutting discretionary spending and lowering taxes. "We will work hard to make sure Democrats don't raise taxes on anybody, and I mean anybody," he said, getting wild applause from a room full of corporate lawyers who are likely well above the cut off for what Obama considers "middle class." All of those things, McConnell said, would be part of the GOP's "humble but determined effort" to do what the voters demanded in this last election. The minority leader might not have been gloating, but the conservative lawyers in the room to hear him speak certainly were.

Fox News host Glenn Beck recently attacked George Soros with rhetoric that was arguably anti-Semitic. At least, the Anti-Defamation League considered it "offensive." On, Adam Serwer of The American Prospect and Michael Moynihan of Reason pondered the age-old question: does Beck really know what he's doing?

For years, the US Chamber of Commerce overstated its membership numbers by a staggering 900 percent. After Mother Jones debunked its fuzzy math last fall, Washington's richest lobbying outfit downplayed its claim that it represented 3 million businesses, instead saying that it had a "direct membership" of 300,000 companies. But now it appears that even that number could be overblown by as much as 500 percent. If that's so, then the Chamber may have to revise its claim to be "the largest business trade association in the country."

The new numbers come from the union-backed group US Chamber Watch, which examined the Chamber's 2009 financial disclosures and concluded that it has fewer than 100,000 dues-paying members. Of those, just a handful contribute the vast majority of its annual budget.

Here are the numbers behind US Chamber Watch's calculations: In 2009, according to forms the non-profit Chamber filed with the IRS, it brought in $205 million. Nearly 94 percent of this, or $193 million, came from slightly fewer than 1,500 members. Assuming that the Chamber has 300,000 members, that means the remaining $12 million of its budget came from 298,500 members giving an average of $40 each. But that doesn't hold up, since the Chamber's minimum annual dues are $125 (for an individual membership). If each member paid at that level, the Chamber would have a total of around 100,000 dues-paying members. If each member paid the minimum corporate dues of $250, then the Chamber would have 50,000 dues-paying members. Either way, it's a far cry from the 300,000 members that the Chamber currently claims.

By citing its impressive membership stats, the Chamber can say that it's in a league of its own. Yet if it indeed does have around 50,000 paid members, it's closer in size to groups such as the National Small Business Association, which last year pegged its dues-paying membership at 60,000.