Last week’s news that federal airport security personnel recently failed to detect 67 out of 70 attempts by expert undercover federal agents to smuggle guns or explosives aboard passenger aircraft in the United States shocked the traveling public and cast a harsh spotlight on the Transportation Security Administration.
Then Tuesday’s testimony by TSA officials to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee added to those concerns.
Rebecca Roering, the agency’s assistant federal security director at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, warned, “The culture that exists at TSA is one of fear and distrust. Better training and management of the workforce would result in an improvement to morale as well as detection rates.”
On one hand, the TSA must reassure Americans that it has corrected the technological and largely human errors that led to such massive failures of detection. In one case reported by ABC News, an undercover agent set off a warning when passing through a full-body scanner but a hand search didn’t discover the simulated explosive taped to the small of his back.
On the other hand, the TSA understandably does not want to tell potential terrorists just how its systems and protocols failed, calls from critical members of Congress that it disclose the test results notwithstanding.
Homeland Security Department Secretary Jeh Johnson has attempted to avoid this dilemma by replacing acting TSA chief Melvin Carraway.
But only a candid discussion of how the agency has responded to the stress test performed by the department’s inspector general is going to satisfy Congress that the TSA is capable of doing its job.
There is little doubt that the TSA is among the most resented federal agencies.
After all, it requires airline passengers to line up with their hand luggage and pass through scanners designed to detect contraband material, often forcing them to take off their shoes and belts and at times even to partially disrobe.
It is a time-consuming experience occasionally made worse by inconsiderate TSA staffers.
So it is not surprising that when reports of the TSA failing stress tests appear, they are followed by calls for doing away with the whole passenger screening process.
But there is evidence that the airline security procedures in place since 9/11 in the U.S. and many other countries have actually helped to reduce aircraft bombings and hijackings and increase airline security.
For example, data maintained by the Airline Safety Network show that in the 14 years before 9/11 there were 256 aircraft hijackings and in the nearly 14 years since that number has dropped to 51.
Yet the TSA’s methods frequently seem heavy-handed, expensive and inefficient. The agency costs $7 billion a year. The Homeland Security Department’s inspector general must continue to probe weaknesses in those methods and find examples of waste.
Meanwhile, federal lawmakers are asking hard questions of Homeland Department Secretary Johnson and TSA officials.
And the alarming answer is that the TSA is overdue for an overhaul.