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.

All that black ink, and they still can't hide the fail.

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.
It's like Christmas -- assuming you didn't unwrap your presents for years, and years, and years …

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

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  1. Very probing article. Thank you!

  2. TSA Confiscates More Than 1,000 Guns From Airplane Passengers in 2011

    Transportation Security Administration officers have confiscated more than 1,000 guns that were discovered by security personnel as passengers traveled through airport security screenings so far this year, the head of the TSA said.

    One slide showed a veritable arsenal allegedly taken from a man arrested at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport after, officials said, TSA officers discovered two handguns, three ammunition clips and eight knives in his bag last month.…..s-in-2011/
    damn intertubez!…

    1. Ahhhh….I was wrong. If not for the clever and intrepid TSA agents we would be having more than 1000 shootings/hijackings every year, you know, just like before the TSA was formed.

      1. Just think back to the 50’s when some airlines had gunracks in the cabin for the convenience of traveling hunters.

        I think they were losing what 5 planes a month? due to damage from the gun-battles aboard.

        1. And more than a dozen/year due to martini-induced fights b/w pilots and co-pilots over hot stewardess love triangles. At least we finally got the cabin door secured to, you know, keep it all cage-matched up.

          It’s true. *rustles around in citation bag* I know it’s in here somewhere…

    2. Thank goodness for the body scanners. Metal detectors never would have detected those guns.

    3. Urine – thanks, once again, for bringing us your unique brand of stupid. We do appreciate it.

    4. “One slide showed a veritable arsenal allegedly taken from a man arrested at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport after, officials said, TSA officers discovered two handguns, three ammunition clips and eight knives in his bag last month.”

      2 pistols and 3 magazines constitute an arsenal?

      And they’re magazines, not clips. As is usual with the media they are completely ignorant when it comes to accurately reporting firearms.

  3. “pointless and oppressive “security theater” ”

    “…it’s increasingly apparent that the TSA is spectacularly inefficient and inept at everything it tries to do.”

    Also, they dont give a flying shit what you think about that. They are the embodiment of government ineptitude and arrogance.

  4. The May issue of Playboy has an outstanding op-ed on TSA mission creep.

    1. There are words in Playboy? No way.

      1. There’s something BESIDES words in Playboy? Cause – I only buy it for the articles….

        /the check will clear, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, it was only driven to church on Sundays by a little old lady…

      2. it’s like the updated version of National Geographic but with better looking women.


        2. But with more airbrushed women.

  5. Being one of those annoying souls who refuses to go through the body scanners, I have had numerous conversations with TSA employees while the grope my privates, (and refuse my request for a female to do the groping). I have asked each one, how many banned items they have found. Only one could come up with an example, which happened to be a razor blade. Others have agreed with me that the screening was ridiculous, and volunteered that plenty of TSA agents won’t go through the scanners.

  6. I still believe the TSA is a conspiracy to nationalize the airline industry.

    1. It’s a conspiracy of Big Train to kill the airline industry.

      1. James Taggart is behind it, obviously.

        1. He’s acquiring Rock Ridge as we speak.

  7. We’re in a War On Terror, right?

    So why aren’t those smuggling TSA agents being executed for treason?

  8. Ha, there was funny thread from when that picture was first used. I will try to find it when I get home.

  9. I always “opt out” of the body scanner. Not necessarily because I think I’ll get tumors on my testes because of the scanner – or because I’m embarrassed of my testes on the interweb – but as a wimpy political statement and to slow things up. The only problem is I’m always uncomfortable after the enhanced pat-down since I don’t know the customary tip. Help me out – is it a Lincoln or a Washington?

    1. A reach-around.

  10. When standing in the scanner, be sure to hold up both middle fingers to flip off the guy on the other end.

    Really sad that American protest has sunk to this.

  11. This really stood out to me and makes me question a lot of the article’s stats. Not that I disagree with a lot of it but this seems really fishy.

    “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.”

  12. Fuck every single liberal who bitches about civil liberties and then supports any dem who says we need this shit. You don’t care about liberty or freedom.

    (At least republicans don’t hide their bullshit.)

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  14. Uh…do you really want them to be efficient?

  15. Now all the position is exposed and i am sure after this the blame game will be started.

  16. I think they should let you have a cigarette after the pat-down, but even that is banned.

  17. keep this going please i think this is a real great article this inspiring me

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