TSA: FAT, DUMB, AND SLOW
On the tenth anniversary of the Transportation Safety Administration, staff investigators for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and for the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure have released a scathing report (entitled, “A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform”). The report indicts the TSA and its Administrator Joe Pistole for wasteful spending, for excessive bureaucratic growth, for ineptitude, for corrupt practices, for lobbying against use of more efficient and effective private security firms in lieu of TSA personnel, for relying on costly and unproven technologies, and for inefficient deployment of security systems. The image of TSA that comes out of the report is one of a fat, dumb, and slow agency that has cost taxpayers billions of dollars but has yet to nab a single terrorist, having instead permitted several to board international flights bound for the United States and to fly on domestic flights unimpeded.
In short, these key committees of the House of Representatives have published findings that should lead every reasonable person to conclude that TSA is an enormously costly failure, a classic boondoggle. TSA should be put out of its misery, replaced by competing private sector security firms possessed of better skilled personnel, better equipment, and a direct financial stake in protecting passengers from international and domestic threats.
TSA sprang to life with the pen stroke of George W. Bush on September 11, 2001. The Committee report summarizes TSA’s abysmal first decade: “Since 2001, TSA has spent nearly $57 billion to secure the U.S. transportation network, and TSA staff has grown from approximately 16,500 in 2001, to over 65,000 today, a near 400% increase. . . . TSA’s massive Washington headquarters supports 3,986 administrative personnel earning on average $103,852 per year. In addition, the agency continues to support an army of 9, 656 administrative field staff, on top of the security officers who actually conduct the physical screening.” Despite these expenditures, the GAO has found that TSA has been singularly incapable of preventing terrorists from boarding aircraft. The report recites: “GAO found that not one terrorist has been caught . . .” Indeed, GAO found that 17 known terrorists traveled on 24 different occasions through security at eight airports where TSA operated its Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program and in not a single instance did TSA agents stop the terrorists from boarding a plane.
Having grown at an astronomical rate, TSA is quite predictably preoccupied with personnel issues, so much so that its administrative regulation of its massive staff requires far more time and effort than its actual performance of its security mission. Indeed, the politics of self-preservation combined with the necessity of large scale management of poorly skilled personnel have led TSA to a crisis of lethargy, as if TSA were an incredibly heavy orb that spins at a barely detectable rate. The authors of the Committee report put it this way: “TSA has lost its focus on transportation security. Instead, it has grown into an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy, more concerned with human resource management and consolidating power. . .”
Buried in the report is this concise and telling observation: “Today, TSA’s screening policies are based on theatrics. They are typical, bureaucratic responses to failed security policies meant to assuage the concerns of the traveling public.” In other words, TSA is far more smoke and mirrors than substance. That TSA theatrical show while lackluster carries a price tag for taxpayers much greater than the costliest and most spectacular Hollywood production: “With more than 65,000 employees, TSA is larger than the Departments of Labor, Energy, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and State, combined,” bemoan the report authors.
The threat to passengers could come from a number of sources, but the federal government presently believes the greatest threat lies in terrorist use of plastic explosives. Despite that perception, TSA has been dreadfully slow in deploying anti-explosive measures. Thus, TSA is not only fat to the point of falling all over itself, it is also slow to the point of endangering the traveling public. The report explains: “The Nation’s 35 largest airports account for nearly 75% of passenger traffic. . . . Less than half of these 35 airports have complete in-line Explosive Detection Systems, with some systems only configured to detect at TSA’s 1998 explosive detection standards . . . .” The problem is not money. Politicians have shoveled as much money as possible into the TSA’s coffers. The problem is an investment in tens of thousands of employees over a lean and mean police force. It is impossible to cause a bureaucracy of 65,000 people to do anything efficiently or, ultimately, effectively. While a single terrorist can destroy hundreds, if not thousands, of lives, in the blink of an eye, it takes a bevy of TSA agents thirty minutes to determine how best to process an eighty-five year old grandmother with a walker through a security check point.
The waste and ineptitude continue with this bloated agency revealing itself incapable of deploying costly technologies designed to identify explosives and undisclosed weapons—a job the machines do poorly. The report explains: “TSA wasted $39 million to procure 207 Explosive Trace Detection Portals . . . deployed only 101 because the machines could not consistently detect explosives . . . [and] . . . paid the Department of Defense $600 per unit to dispose of the useless machines.” In addition: “TSA deployed 500 Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) devices in a haphazard and easily thwarted manner at a cost of more than $122 million . . . By 2013 . . . the total cost to taxpayers for AIT deployment will reach almost half a billion dollars. In 2010, GAO . . . found that ‘it remains unclear whether the AIT would have detected [the Underwear Bomber]’” and “the effectiveness of these devices . . . remains questionable.”
Indeed, TSA appears to have been efficient in only one area. It moved with haste to suppress private competition to its near absolute monopoly on security service at airports. Private screeners that are far less costly to train and are far more efficient and effective in detecting threats than government employees were supposed to be hired as part of the Screening Partnership Program (SPP). Not stupid, the TSA Administrator and his field staff perceived a threat from the private competition and moved to eliminate that threat despite law to the contrary. Here is the report summary: “TSA has continuously thwarted the adoption of the SPP and has a history of intimidating airport operators that express an interest in participating in the SPP. Throughout 2009 and 2010, TSA held hostage all SPP applications from the entire state of Montana, ultimately denying them for all four airports. Throughout this timeframe, multiple SP applicant airports reported the use of scare tactics by uniformed federal TSOs [Transportation Safety Officers] directed towards airport passengers. In one instance, TSOs repeatedly informed passengers that it would not be safe to fly under the SPP model, and lobbied the airport board, the press, and local government officials to abolish the program. Then in January 2011, TSA Administrator [Joe] Pistole halted expansion of the SPP. This decision was made despite nine years of successful operations . . .” Those actions against the express requirements of statute are illegal, but who in the Obama Administration will bring charges against the TSA Administrator?
An independent consulting firm found that “private screeners performed at a level that was equal to or greater than that of federal TSOs.” Additional evidence discovered by investigative reporters at USA Today reveals that private screeners had a significantly higher screener detection rate at one Screening Partnership Program airport than at an airport where screening was provided solely by the TSA. That stands to reason because, unlike government employees, private sector security personnel have a direct financial stake in achieving the security objective as does their employer.
Moreover, unlike the TSA, private firms operate without the incessant interference of layer upon layer of bureaucratic supervisors and, ultimately, of political managers. Finally, if TSA fails and a terrorist blows up an airplane, the worst that can happen is that the Administrator is sent packing but without having to answer in law for his ineptitude or negligence. If a private security firm fails and a terrorist blows up an airplane, that firm will be out of work and will effectively wear a scarlet letter of shame dissuading anyone else from hiring the firm. Worse still, its responsible personnel could be prosecuted for negligence or even involuntary manslaughter.
The TSA is a monstrously inept and costly institution that retards efficient airline traffic with security techniques that are out-dated and incapable of ensuring safety. Instead, the long lines created by static security check points are themselves an invitation to terrorist attacks and serve only to subject innocent passengers to indignities, delays, and some unwanted radiation. There has to be a better way, and there is.
Private firms encouraged to hire well trained former United States military and intelligence personnel and to employ largely invisible monitoring and detection throughout an airport can do far more to uncover explosives and terror suspects than the static check points employing personnel and machines that are largely ineffective and, in any event, incapable of stopping a single determined terrorist from delivering an explosive. Moreover, private firms are far more efficient in their organization and administration and far more intelligent in their approach to the security problem than government bureaucrats. They certainly cost a lot less than the monstrous TSA. In addition, private firms have an incentive to innovate constantly, employing new and better techniques as rapidly as possible, while the TSA has a decade-long track record of moving at a snail’s pace.
In the end, pre-emptive strikes against those abroad who are dedicated to our destruction remain the best solution. We cannot expect to be safe if we depend primarily on defensive measures because there is always a means to overcome a defense and there is never a fool proof method to prevent infiltration by terrorists into the security infrastructure, disabling it at critical points.
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Thus far, the most effective means of thwarting terror has come from airline passengers and crews themselves. TSA has not a single terrorist capture or kill to tout. We have relied on citizen militias throughout our history to fend off threats to our homes. We have relied successfully on private security firms to provide effective defense of American businesses around the world. We have relied on private security firms to protect American military personnel and facilities in high risk areas in the Middle East. A competitive market exists in the security field that complements proven effectiveness with economic reward and punishes ineffectiveness with financial ruin. It is that natural market dynamic that ensures maximum effectiveness. There is no comparable means available to transform TSA from its bloated and inept present status into a lean, competitive, and efficient institution. If there were any doubt before the Committee report, there should be none after: We should scrap TSA in favor of competitive private security contractors subject to external private audits that challenge operational effectiveness.
© 2011 Jonathan W. Emord - All Rights Reserved