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Why Is Ezra Klein's Vox Parroting Right-Wing Talking Points About Privatizing the TSA?

Questionable behavior at a supposedly "objective" media outlet.

A TSA agent searches luggage at an airport
Photo Credit: Carolina K. Smith MD /


Between 2011 and 2012, despite aggressive and sustained opposition from right-wing politicians and pundits, 45,000 transportation security officers at the Transportation Security Administration won their first-ever labor contract, thanks to a hardened organizing drve by the American Federation of Government Employees.

It’s no surprise that the agency soon came under intense attack from Republicans and D.C. lobbyists who normally utter nary a word about civil liberties. These Republicans, like Rep. John Mica (R-FL), whose campaign coffers are lined with cash from private security contractors who want to displace the TSA, made clear that their goal was to privatize the agency – meaning they were okay with security procedures some viewed as intrusive, but they wanted profit-making, non-unionized corporations to be the ones doing these searches, not one of America’s newest unionized public workforces.

Earlier this week, – a new website run by wunderkind Ezra Klein that promises to “explain the news” in an objective manner setting itself apart from supposedly more ideological media on the left and right – piled onto this campaign by publishing an article called “The Case for Abolishing The TSA.”

To the piece’s author, Dylan Matthews, abolishing the TSA isn’t a tough call – rather, it’s just a matter of objective data that shows the agency is virtually a waste of resources, and that the responsibility of airline security should be privatized and carried out by the airlines themselves. “It’s worth remembering that the inconvenience and injustice of the TSA’s activities exists for literally no reason,” he writes. “Airline security is, so far as we can tell, totally useless.”

To defend reaching this conclusion, Matthews cites a variety of sources. First, he points to Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer who he refers to as a security expert. The source Matthews links to is not a peer-reviewed paper or journal article, but rather a statement Schneier made in a debate. The debate is not over abolishing the TSA, persay, but rather about TSA’s post-9/11 security measures. While Schneier argues that the TSA has not apprehended any terrorists since 9/11, he does not argue for the agency’s abolition. On the contrary, he writes that “aircraft require a special level of security for several reasons: they are a favoured terrorist target; their failure characteristics mean more deaths than a comparable bomb on a bus or train; they tend ot be national symbols; and they often fly to foreign countries where terrorists can operate with more impunity. But all that can be handled with pre-9/11 security.”

The next set of sources Matthews uses is a literature review by professors Cynthia Lum and Leslie Kennedy, of George Mason University and Rutgers, respectively. Matthews writes that these professors studied the research on airport security and found that while the TSA has prevented hijackings, it “didn’t reduce attacks, but encouraged would-be hijackers to attack through other means.” He concludes, “Additional research done after the review has similarly concluded that the screenings are, in effect, a wash.”

Actually, that’s not what Lum and Kennedy conclude. I know this because I emailed them and asked. Here’s what Kennedy had to say about Matthews’s article:

"We did not argue for abolishing the TSA.   That is the reporter's conclusion not ours.  We simply reported on the effectiveness of airport screening which we found, based on the research, was quite high.  Our research was not focused on the TSA per se but, obviously, based on our findings, it would make no sense to get rid of airport screening." 

And here is what Lum had to say: “I agree with Prof Kennedy. This is an incorrect interpretation of our research.”

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