Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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How Do You Solve a Problem Like the TSA?
June 3, 2015 -- Frequent fliers have one question and a follow-up for the four Democrats and approximately 30 Republicans who say they'd like to be the next president of the United States.
Isn't it time to close the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the bloated, bumbling and bumptious federal agency that's making a mockery of security screening at the nation's airports?
For candidates whose answer is no, the follow-up is simple: How can you justify keeping the TSA open in light of this week's disclosure that it failed to identify 95 percent of the mock bombs and weapons carried through airport checkpoints in an internal test?
For presidential candidates who say they'd scrap the 14-year-old agency, here's the follow-up: Do you favor a return to the sloppy, substandard and slapdash private security system in place at airport checkpoints on September 11, 2001?
Welcome to the rest of our frequent flying lives, fellow travelers. We're caught between a political rock and a privatized hard place. No one has a particularly persuasive answer to our questions about airport and airline security. Worse, everyone in Washington is retreating to their familiar corners, spouting the usual anti-government or anti-business rhetoric.
If you were too busy this week following the Caitlyn Jenner saga, struggling to separate the Patriot Act from the USA Freedom Act, or just trying to figure out who the hell Sepp Blatter is, allow me to brief you on the latest of the never-ending scandals to hit the TSA.
On Monday, ABC News got its hands on results of the latest audit of TSA procedures conducted by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). According to ABC, Homeland Security testers smuggled phony guns and explosives past TSA airport checkpoints 67 of 70 times they tried. One DHS tester posing as a passenger did set off a magnetometer alarm. However, TSA agents failed to find the mock explosives taped to his back during the subsequent pat-down.
The TSA and its parent, DHS, reacted as government bureaucracies do. Homeland Security secretary Jeh Johnson ordered a series of undisclosed shuffles of the agency's deck chairs. He also offered up a scapegoat: a hapless career civil servant named Melvin Carraway. He'd been filling in as TSA boss since the previous TSA Administrator, John Pistole, left at the end of last year. With Carraway banished to a DHS gulag, Johnson appointed another temp to run the TSA until Congress decides whether it'll approve President Obama's nominee, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Pete Neffenger.
Meanwhile, TSA spokespeople beclowned themselves by claiming that a 95 percent failure rate at checkpoints isn't really that bad since there are other "layers" of security keeping us safe. Of course, they didn't mention that once you get a weapon past an airport security checkpoint, there's no other systemic "layer" to detect contraband.
The TSA's near-total collapse at airport checkpoints is shocking, but hardly surprising. Ever since it was hastily created after the 2001 terrorism attacks, the TSA has repeatedly failed similar external performance audits. Another of its security "layers," a behavior-detection program, has been excoriated as pop-psychology hogwash at best and racial profiling at worst. And just three weeks ago, the DHS Inspector General said the TSA can't even maintain its own equipment at the 450 or so domestic airports where it operates. That's no surprise, either, since borderline corrupt practices by former Bush Administration Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff led the TSA to buy and now abandoned "nude-o-scope" full-body scanners. The machines cost $160,000 a unit and you could recently pick one up at a government auction for as little as $10.
As an organization, the TSA is also very bad joke. It gives checkpoint agents phony badges, hoping to bamboozle passengers into thinking that screeners have policing power. It tries to stop reporters from writing about the agency by issuing dubious subpoenas. It constantly flouts laws and ignores court orders. An alarming number of checkpoint employees are accused of theft (try googling "TSA thefts"), sexual assault or other types of misconduct.
This cascade of incompetence is music to the ears of anti-government types such as right-wing Republicans and the Tea Party. They've been howling for a restructuring, if not outright abolition, of the TSA since before it was created.
Their case against the TSA — which employs approximately 55,000 people and a spends more than $7 billion a year — is undeniable. The agency is out of control, disinterested in reforming itself, impervious to valid outside criticism and often ignores the letter and spirit of the law that created it.
But here's the thing. Who today doesn't believe that keeping our airports, aircraft and passengers safe is a matter of national security? Who else but the federal government is logically and Constitutionally positioned to run air-travel security?
The small-government and free-market types will naturally say private industry. There's just one problem with that knee-jerk response. It doesn't work. It never has.
Before the TSA, airlines and airports were responsible for security. They farmed it out to a motley collection of rent-a-cop agencies that make today's TSA seem like a paragon of reliability. Private screeners were making as little as $6 an hour. The employee turnover rate was as high as 400 percent. And business travelers like us invented the pejorative "security kabuki" for the minimally trained, constantly confused and never effective private screening mechanism.
How does scrapping the TSA and returning to that failed approach of the past make any sense? Yes, it might be cheaper to go private than keep airport it in the public sphere. But on-the-cheap security surely won't be better than the morally flawed and organizationally bankrupt TSA. And going private might not be cheaper than a well-run federal program. Just think about the financial and moral cost of using the Blackwaters and the Halliburtons when we privatized parts of the war on terror. And what about that nagging national security imperative?
As I said, we'll probably be flying between a political rock and a privatized hard place for the rest of our lives. So buckle up it's going to be a bumpy and not particularly edifying ride.