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Why the TSA Gave Up on Knives on Planes

TSA agent at Pittsburgh International Airport.
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TSA agent at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Politics and arrogance likely scuttled the plan by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to allow small knives back on planes, but it's not clear that fliers are any safer for it.

Last week, the TSA announced that while the agency's "top priority continues to be expansion of efforts to implement a layered, risk-based security approach to passenger screening while maximizing resources," it was putting aside a proposed plan to allow passengers to take small knives, toy bats, billiard cues, ski poles, hockey sticks and other currently prohibited sports equipment on board as carry-on items.

The revised list of allowable carry-on items was supposed to go into effect at the end of April, but received strong opposition from flight attendants, pilots, law enforcement, airlines and a bipartisan group of legislators concerned that knives, especially, could be used in attacks on flight crews and other passengers.

"On its merits, the original decision to remove the items from the list was probably based on sound examination of threats risks and vulnerabilities, but given the public reaction, and that of stakeholders and Congress, politically it became too big of fight and not one TSA felt was worth having," Christian Beckner, deputy director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, told NBC News.

While TSA Administrator John Pistole may have lost this battle, "he has the right instincts," Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Prescott Arizona campus, told NBC News.

"Unfortunately, because of the political climate at the federal level in Washington and the political aspects of TSA, his hands are tied more than he'd like to them to be."

That doesn't mean the discussion is over.

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"The TSA can probably revisit the discussion about hockey sticks, golf clubs and other items in the coming months," said Beckner. "But because of the history of how the attacks of September 11 were carried out, there will be always be a visceral reaction to removing even the small knives from the list."

American Airlines employees protest at Los Angeles International Airport.
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American Airlines employees protest at Los Angeles International Airport.

Going forward, the discussion will likely take a different form.

"You can't make an acceptable risk decision unless you talk to those affected by it," said Henry Willis, director the Rand Corp.'s Homeland Security and Defense Center. "I expect TSA to continue making decisions informed by risk, but to more actively engage those affected by those decisions when making them."

Even so, there are likely to be roadblocks.

An amendment attached to the homeland security bill coming out of the House of Representatives contains language that restricts the TSA from using funds to implement a program that allows knives back on planes, said Eben Burnham-Snyder, spokesman for congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who introduced the bipartisan amendment with Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.). "It's basically an insurance policy on the reversal of the decision."

And then there's gridlock.

"I wish I was wrong about this, but I expect more of the same," said Bloom. "Even if folks come up with good ideas in term of counter-terrorism and research on this topic, I think politics will continue to get in the way."

—By Harriet Baskas, NBC News contributor

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