The Terrible Truth About the TSA

It's a failure at everything it does.


We don't all all agree on whether the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has any business groping toddlers and destroying expensive medical equipment in the pursuit of its appointed mission of keeping travelers safe from scary terrorists. Quotable security expert Bruce Schneier calls it all pointless and oppressive "security theater" intended to make the government look responsive, while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) describes intrusive measures as "very important" and pushes for even stronger stuff. But necessary evil or not, it's increasingly apparent that the TSA is spectacularly inefficient and inept at everything it tries to do.

A report released this week by the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General was only the latest peek at TSA doings to take issue with how the security bureaucracy handles its job. Sparked by security breaches at Newark Liberty International Airport, the redacted document (PDF) found that when the TSA's roughly 50,000 Transportation Security Officers stumble in their battle against whatever smoldering undergarments international terrorism might throw their way, letting people and cargo pass uninspected through checkpoints, there's often little consequence. "At the six airports visited, TSA did not always take action or document their actions to correct security breach vulnerabilities. During our review, we identified documentation of corrective actions for only [redacted] (53%) of the [redacted] breaches we reviewed." In fact, "TSA does not have a process to ensure that all security breaches are identified and reported."

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If TSA agents aren't keeping track of security breaches, they're also not unwrapping all that expensive equipment that's supposed to be necessary for keeping us safe. Controversial nudie scanners, high-tech bomb detectors, and other big-ticket machines sold to the American public as replacements for old-fashioned, antebellum-on-terror techniques gathers dust in warehouses. A report (PDF) compiled by the Republican staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and released last week found that the agency charged with making air travel (and so much more) such a hassle "is wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by inefficiently deploying screening equipment and technology to commercial airports."

Some highlights:

  • 85 percent of the approximately 5,700 items of major transportation security equipment currently warehoused had been stored for longer than six months; 35 percent of the equipment had been stored for more than one year. One piece of equipment had been in storage more than six years—60 percent of its useful life.
  • TSA had 472 carry-on baggage screening machines warehoused, more than 99 percent of which have remained in storage for more than nine months; 34 percent of the machines have been stored for longer than one year.
  • TSA possessed 1,462 explosive trace detectors in storage, each purchased at a cost of $30,000. Of those devices, 492 had been in storage for longer than one year.

Maybe it's just as well, really. Why waste effort on unwrapping the stuff if it's to be used as so much glorified statuary? In March, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released the latest of its fascinating reports on TSA efforts. This time, the GAO found that, even where the TSA has bothered to rip off the bubble wrap and deploy advanced imaging technology full-body scanners to airports, "some of the deployed AIT units were used on less than 5 percent of the days they were available since their deployment. Additionally, some units were used on less than 30 percent of the days available since their installation. Moreover, we reported that at some of the 12 airports we visited, AIT units were deployed but were not regularly used."

Anyway, it's not clear if actually unpacking and using all that costly gear would actually make us any safer, or whether it's all so much ritual and incantation. One of the longstanding complaints about the TSA is that the agency is better at cooking up complicated schemes than it is at determining the effectiveness of its security approaches.

A 2007 review of TSA methods published in the British Medical Journal found "no comprehensive studies that evaluated the effectiveness of x ray screening of passengers or hand luggage, screening with metal detectors, or screening to detect explosives." In 2010, seven years after the TSA initiated its behavioral Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program, the GAO cautioned, "TSA deployed SPOT nationwide without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment." In the March 2012 report, the GAO pointed out that a flawed SPOT study performed since that time still "was not designed to fully validate whether behavior detection can be used to reliably identify individuals in an airport environment who pose a security risk."

When the GAO checked on the TSA's fancy biometric TWIC identification cards for controlling access to sensitive port facilities, it reported, "DHS has not demonstrated that TWIC, as currently implemented and planned with card readers, is more effective than prior approaches used to limit access to ports and facilities." If anything, the TSA may have successfully replaced previously decentralized security procedures with a national system of incompetence, since "our investigators were successful in accessing port facilities using counterfeit TWICs, authentic TWICs acquired through fraudulent means, and false business cases (i.e., reasons for requesting access)."

And on, and on, and on.

Most head-shaking coverage of the TSA focuses on headline-worthy feel-ups of children and senior citizens, humiliating treatment of travelers, theft of or damage to valuables by federal agents, and the like. And that's good—such incidents shouldn't go overlooked. But the inevitable comeback from the Feinsteins of the world is that these are relatively minor and unavoidable tradeoffs for saved lives and property.

When you dig a little deeper, though, it's clear that year after year, the Transportation Security Administration not only engaged in these abuses, it has proven itself to be spectacularly bad at implementing programs it rarely makes any effort to demonstrate actually accomplish a damned thing.

J.D. Tuccille is managing editor of 24/7 News at Reason.com.