Here's one thing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has going for it: a nifty Instagram feed.
The airport security agency's presence on the social media service consists largely of pictures of items, often colorful and bizarre, that airport screeners have confiscated. Many are conventional weapons and ammunition—knives and guns and bullets, sometimes cleverly hidden, as well as the occasional smoke grenade. Others are more obscure: a set of see-through nunchucks, a trio of propane tanks ("prohibited due to their propensity to explode"), a sleek black variation on the traditional Klingon Batleth, and a case full of Batman's Batarangs, with a gentle note instructing other aspiring superheroes to always stow their utility belts in checked baggage.
It's mildly endearing, in the way of an irritating stray dog who also knows how to shake hands, and it's intended as a form of self-promotion and self-congratulation. The confiscated oddities are posted with the hashtag #TSAGoodCatch, as if to say to the world, Here's an amusing sample of what we're protecting you from—if we're catching Batleths and Batarangs, imagine what else we're keeping at bay.
It requires no imagination, however, to discover what TSA screeners are not catching. Earlier this week, ABC News reported that undercover security testers were able to pass prohibited items, including simulated explosives and weapons, through the TSA's systems on 67 out of 70 attempts—a 95 percent failure rate.
That virtually every attempt to take a banned item through security was successful suggests that when prohibited items are found it may be more a matter of dumb luck than procedural effectiveness. The TSA's expensive, invasive, and time-consuming procedures appear to be almost entirely unable to catch someone who is intent on bring contraband on board.
TSA officials have complained in the past that undercover security testers—known as the Red Team—have an unfair advantage. The testers know the agency's policies and procedures, and can design tests specifically to evade them. In 2013, former TSA chief John Pistole complained that the Red Team was a group of "super terrorists."
But the leaked test results suggest that it doesn't take terrorist masterminds to get through security with dangerous material.
Indeed, the TSA agents tested were apparently so incompetent that even when faced with literal ringing alarm bells alerting them to the presence of potentially explosive materials, they failed to find the goods. According to ABC News, "In one test an undercover agent was stopped after setting off an alarm at a magnetometer, but TSA screeners failed to detect a fake explosive device that was taped to his back during a follow-on pat down." They found the bomb—and yet they still couldn't find the bomb.
This wasn't some brilliantly designed plot based on secret inside knowledge of how the TSA's system works: The Red Team tester taped a fake bomb to his body and then walked through the bomb scanner, which went off. If that's too much for this $7 billion agency, then what can they handle? Batarangs, apparently.
Not surprisingly, none of this made the Instagram feed, perhaps because it would have required a new hashtag: #TSANoCatch
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson wouldn't confirm the exact number of successful attempts, insisting, in an inadvertent demonstration of the effectiveness of the agency's security protocols, that the figure was classified.
But he did appear to take the report, or at least its likely political fallout, seriously: Johnson "reassigned" acting TSA head Melvin Carraway yesterday in response to the report. He also reportedly put in a series of new policies and procedures designed to address the failings encountered in the report.
Johnson didn't say what the new policies were, but I may have witnessed a sample of while boarding a flight from Charlotte to Baltimore on Monday afternoon: A trio of latex-gloved agents positioned themselves inside the narrow boarding ramp and began to randomly select passengers for additional screening, including pat-downs and bag searches. They found nothing, of course, but managed to slow down the line and further inconvenience the passengers, most of whom were already long delayed.
It's the sort of move that has all the makings of a perfectly bureaucratic response: After a report found that the agency had consistently failed at security screening, why not respond by doing even more of it? Perhaps adding yet another useless show of force will make up for the uselessness all the other ones.
If history is any guide, no one should hold out much hope that whatever it is the TSA is doing in response to its reported failures will improve its effectiveness. The agency has been struggling with checkpoint tests since its inception, and getting worse over time. In 2002, USA Today reported on documents showing that undercover operatives were able to sneak bombs and other weapons through about a quarter of the time. In 2007, unmarked security screeners found a 60 percent failure rate at two big airports.
At each point, TSA officials promised to fix the problems. Since 2007, ABC News reported, the agency has spent $550 million on new screening equipment and agent training.
It's not helping. The latest round of tests shows that agency is worse than ever at finding dangerous material on planes. More equipment, more training, and more money have done the opposite of improve the agency's effectiveness
In the near term, TSA reform shouldn't focus on expanding its array of search procedures, on adding more random stops and frustrating checkpoints. Airport travel doesn't need to become more of a slow and undignified hassle, and the TSA is clearly incapable of performing even basic responsibilities at this point. Instead, the agency should narrow its brief and concentrate on improving in a few core areas.
But even that won't be enough. As a lumbering federal agency subject with more than 60,000 employees, there's a certain amount of bureaucratic ineptitude built in to the system that will never be overcome. Reformers should push Congress to permanently end the TSA and open airport screening to private security organizations, more like those used across Canada and Europe.
True, some would be no better than the TSA at first, but the bad ones could always be fired and replaced. (And anyway, given the TSA's awful recent showing, and the trajectory of its testing results over the last decade, even a mediocre performer would still be an improvement.)
The best ones, meanwhile, could help discover best practices that could then be copied and modified at other airports. If implemented properly, the result would be a distributed, competitive approach to airport security rather than what we have now: an expensive, ineffective, top-down system crippled by bureaucracy and politics.
It would be a significant transition, but one that could pave the way for airport security that improved over time instead of growing worse, and perhaps even a faster, more dignified airport experience as well. I, for one, wouldn't miss the TSA and its unwelcome fingers. But I'll admit: I might miss its Instagram feed.