The TSA Is Useless. But Have You Seen Their Instagram Feed?

It's time to get rid of the faltering federal security agency.



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.

NEXT: Sorry Liberals, Bernie Sanders Is a 'Gun Nut'

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  1. Get rid of the TSA? Planes will fall from the sky, without the TSA to keep them up there.

    1. Get rid of the TSA and the SEIU will scream bloody murder.

      1. This. They’re institutionalized now, which was the intention all along. Union empire building.

        1. The “and unionize” is often left off the end of the “You can’t professionalize unless you federalize” quote.

        2. Just wait’ll you see moonbeam’s mobile hiring hall on rails!

      2. Who cares what Southeastern Indiana University thinks?

  2. This incompetence cannot stand. We must federalize the passenger screening process. We can’t trust these private companies with their lax employees. They didn’t catch the 9/11 scum. We need to put this job into the hands of the federal government!!

  3. Why don’t they just do a merger? Maybe the CDC or SBA would be good candidates.

    1. Don’t give them ideas. If Rand Paul were to win the presidency, Obama would merge the TSA with the DEA one month before inauguration.

      1. But imagine the rally we would hold in front of that super agency.

  4. 2 points. 1. What kind of bone headed government agent decided to point out the flaws in security theatre? 2. How did they find agents willing to put their lives on the line sneaking a bomb in? Don’t they know they could be shot before they flip out their badge?

    1. They were fake bombs and TSAgents don’t carry.

      1. Then what’s the point?!? If they aren’t going to panic fire on anyone with a cell phone gun, why do we pay them?!?

      2. TSAgents don’t carry.


        1. But there are armed officers in airports. Many larger ones are essentially swat capable.

  5. Hold on sir, I just need to check ya asshole!

  6. Just have the person in front of you carry a water bottle. You can bring anything on while they send a full team to check that guy out.

  7. You can bring anything on while they send a full team to check that guy out.

    That reminds me of something some magician said:
    “Misdirection. I could bring an elephant on stage while the audience is trying to figure out where that stupid little bird came from.”

  8. One of my professors in college, who taught both pre-law for undergrads and actual law school courses, told an amusing story about an encounter he had at LAX with a TSA agent that wanted to confiscate the jar of salsa he was planning on taking in his carry-on.

    The agent asked him to hand it over and when he asked her if she was confiscating it she adamantly refused to say she was. It ended up being something out of Seinfeld where he repeatedly challenged her to simply take the salsa from him and she insisted that he would give it to her voluntarily because their policy isn’t to confiscate things.

    1. I feel bad for the dude a couple people in front of him who had his chips taken away. You know that salsa was going into the maw of Agent McFattling over lunch…

  9. 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.

    an undercover investigator with a fake bomb hidden on his body passed through a metal detector, went through a pat-down at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty Airport, and was never caught

    Secretary Johnson immediately directed TSA to implement a series of actions, several of which are now in place, to address the issues raised in the report

    Great… I can see it now. No more opt out of the rapiscan.

    1. I assume they also tape stuff to their sides, which the rapey-scan won’t detect because metal objects show as black, just like the rapey-scan field outside the body outline. So objects held along the side of the body will blend into the background and be undetected. Just check out Rapiscan body images to see how it works.

      1. The screeners will need clearer full color nude images then.

        1. And their Instragram will get a whole lot more interesting.

          1. And a whole lot more terrifying…

  10. It’s a joke. I stopped pulling out my quart sized bag of liquids years ago. 50+ flights and not once have I needed to use my “oops, I forgot to pull it out” excuse.

    1. 50+ flights- Pre? every time you fly?

      1. Nope. Just normal line. 50+ is over a few years since the quart bag guidance.

    2. Wait, 50 flights and nobody has told you to “pull it out”? I love the pill…

  11. All those Instagram pics were taken and uploaded on stolen iPhones.

  12. There’s really only one solution here- stop running these security tests.

    1. At least quit telling the public about them.

  13. permanently end the TSA and open airport screening to private security organizations

    IOW, go back to the way it was done before 9/11? That’s crazy talk! Just like ending mass surveillance for even a couple of days is catastrophic because TEH TERRORISTS could launch an attack in that tiny window of opportunity, going back to pre-9/11 airport security would be ARMEGGEDON! DO YOU WANT TEH TERRORISTS TO WIN SUDERMAN?!

    Also, something about EVUL PROFITZ!

  14. 2007, I took a long overseas trip. They wouldn’t let me walk through the metal detector with my cane as it had a metal handle. They passed it around the detector as I stumbled through. It wasn’t until the second leg of the trip that I remembered that the cane contained a sword. As I don’t relish being detained or wrestled to the ground I am glad of their incompetence.

    1. It wasn’t until the second leg of the trip that I remembered that the cane contained a sword.

      You have a cane sword? That’s so fucking pimp…

      I’ve thought about trying to see if I could sneak my katana through, but it’s a $700 dollar sword, and I don’t want them confiscating it on the off chance they manage to find it.

      1. When I reached the point I needed a cane I found it in my closet from my convention days.

    2. It wasn’t until the second leg of the trip that I remembered that the cane contained a sword.

      You have a cane sword? That’s so fucking pimp…

      I’ve thought about trying to see if I could sneak my katana through, but it’s a $700 dollar sword, and I don’t want them confiscating it on the off chance they manage to find it.

  15. I’d personally like to see a comparison between airports that have been granted the privilege to use private security companies (like SFO) and those that are forced to use the nationalized security personnel. I’m betting the stats would be very telling.

    1. What’s the standard for being allowed to use a private security agency?

    2. John Stossel has you covered as he looked into that. In short, they are substantially faster and miss fewer items when tested undercover.


      1. Yea, I’ve seen that. That’s why I would like to see the results broken down by airport. I would put good money on the private security providers outperforming the federal screeners. I would even bet that all of the 5% success rate could be attributed to the private screening contractors.

    3. I imagine the stats would be very similar.

      No market forces in play to tilt the scale.

  16. mildly endearing, in the way of an irritating stray dog who also knows how to shake hands

    That’s pretty good.

  17. Not at all surprising. I used to have a tiny pocketknife on my keychain. Not large enough to win a fight, but useful when I needed to cut something. But clearly in violation of the TSA rules. I made it through 3 or 4 flights before they found it. I wasn’t hiding it at all, in fact I had just forgotten I had it. It was right there on my keychain, which got scanned with everything else.

  18. Reason needs to stop being an enabler of the TSA and the thugs that promote it. The TSA is *far* from useless. It’s tremendously useful for behavioral conditioning of the populace. 5% is good enough for the unwashed masses – that argument will never play in Peoria.

    Face the problem head-on instead of playing the power-elite’s game, and then _maybe_ some progress can be made.

    1. You sit down and be quiet. We’re trying to become mainstream. All your bitching about the State abusing it’s authority is making us look like fanatics. Just like those dead white men from two hundred years ago.

  19. 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.

    It’s because the people getting shit confiscated usually aren’t trying to hide anything. Bet you know where I’m going with this…

  20. We should all be relieved that “actual” terrorist don’t know how the TSA operates and only government approved terrorist are able to get through such a tight security net …

    1. You don’t have to “know” how they operate… they are 95% incompetent the 5% they did catch was just outlandishly dumb luck. What it shows is there aren’t terrorists hiding under every bed waiting to kill us all. The terrorist threat is all pure propaganda from war mongering morons.

  21. yet another useless show of force

    Show of force is never useless. It keeps the serfs from getting uppity.

  22. Well, to be fair, the TSA Instagram feed is a pretty amazing indictment on people’s gall or stupidity. I can see forgetting that a pocket knife or something is buried in your backpack, but WTF are you doing with a tank shell?

  23. At this point, I’m convinced that the reason we don’t have terrorist suicide bombers taking out airplanes, is that, really, they just don’t care to.

    It makes sense: if you want to kill about 100 people with a bomb, there are ways to do that without airplanes.

    I think the locked cockpit door has more to do with securing airplanes than anything the TSA is doing. Not that that’s perfect, just that nothing really has to be.

    1. Airplanes have a psychological and economic impact that many other targets wouldn’t.

      The TSA has also conditioned people to watch each other so there’s an extra layer of scrutiny by people who can’t be any less competent than trained TSA agents.

      1. Still, I am having trouble coming up for an explanation of why suicide bombers aren’t trying to get on airplanes, and either blowing themselves up in the sky, or blowing themselves up at the TSA checkpoint if someone actually finds the bomb.

        Bombing a TSA checkpoint would have very similar effects on air travel as bombing an airplane. Yet, it does not happen.

        1. They have tried. First we had the shoe bomber, and then the underwear bomber. The reason they haven’t succeeded is their fellow passengers beat the crap out of them when they tried. 9/11 showed people that these guys are not interested in getting their political message out by hijacking a plane and taking it to Beirut. They want to blow it up and get a high body count. So, the passengers take their security into their own hands. And, so far, that’s worked.

          1. I think they could try better than that.

            The underwear bomber lit the wall of the plane on fire before anyone knew what was happening. His bomb was so bad that he couldn’t even set it off properly.

            The shoe bomber couldn’t set his off because his plan was to use a match to light a fuse leading to his shoe bomb, and the fuse got wet.

            To my knowledge, no suicide bomber has snuck on an airplane with a bomb and set it off to actually kill passengers, and no suicide bomber has been detected and set it off at a TSA checkpoint.

            Why not? Apparently, it’s not impossible to do either.

        2. Because the terrorists have already done their job. The entire goal and point of a terror attack is to get a large population of people to cower in fear and change their way of life. TSA, DHS, NSA and others accomplish these terrorist’s goals far greater than the initial terrorists could have ever imagined.

          Sweet irony of the masses who have no clue.

  24. This is a serious problem requiring major reform. Even now, I’m confident that our elected officials are working diligently to make sure future tests of TSA performance are much easier. Then we can all be confident in a much lower reported failure rate.

    1. Next time maybe they can strap the bomb to the persons head or hide it in their anus. The TSA should find it in one of those places.

      Even if they dont someone from the TSA has to shove something large up their ass so its a win win.

  25. “It’s mildly endearing, in the way of an irritating stray dog who also knows how to shake hands”

    Someone’s been reading his Mencken. Well done, Suderman.

  26. I’m not really surprised about the explosives trace. I did the initial install and maintenance of the Explosive Trace Detection devices as a contractor for Siemens. Those things put off a lot of false positives. I was at the airport in Gillette, Wyoming at least once a week until we figured out that any time the wind blew the right direction the damn things were picking up on dust from the uranium mines. The Rock Springs airport sits on a plateau in the middle of prime cattle country. It’s so bad at some airports that TSA (especially with the morons they employee now) ignore half the warnings from the ETD’s.

  27. Duh, a $10 security guard is never going to be anything but a $10 security guard, fancy government powers or civilian rent a cop.

  28. I hate to be pedantic, but is anyone proofreading over there?
    Imagine this hypothetical: what if someone becomes nauseated from seeing yet another “Occupy*any noun here*” meme on her Facebook feed, and has an induced, personal Libertarian Moment right fuckin’ then?! But her outrage turns to doubt; what does she actually believe?
    “Are there others who think like I do?” she wonders.
    She Googles “rand paul” because shes heard him on the news and likes what he’s got to say. Two links later, she’s on an article about the TSA. She thinks “This Reason site is making a lot of sense, but what’s with the spelling and grammatical errors? Are these guys like those conspiracy nut-jobs that everyone makes fun of?”

    5th paragraph,
    “catch someone who is intent on bring contraband on board.”
    Towards the end,
    “Perhaps adding yet another useless show of force will make up for the uselessness all the other ones.”

    1. Yeah I’ve noticed worse and worse editing across all sites, not just Reason. I think it’s a product of less junior editors and more reliance on editing software. Unfortunately, the software is inferior, but good enough. There is little market incentive to fix the problem, especially if your competitors are using the same software. However, the software will continue to improve, due to research in related fields and increases in computational power.

  29. my roomate’s mother makes $63 /hour on the internet . She has been fired from work for ten months but last month her paycheck was $16842 just working on the internet for a few hours. check out the post right here … ?netjob80.com

  30. I’ve been writing about this for years. No reasoning person ever believed the procedures put in place to “keep us safe” would ever accomplish anything of benefit to the American people.


  31. Google pay 97$ per hour my last pay check was $8500 working 1o hours a week online. My younger brother friend has been averaging 12k for months now and he works about 22 hours a week. I cant believe how easy it was once I tried it out.
    This is wha- I do…… ?????? http://www.www.jobnet20.com

  32. We need an airline called “Whimp ass scardey pants Air,” or something like that, that requires everyone have no carry ons, dress only in hospital gowns, go through an observed poop and full strip search, must remain completely silent, have their photographs and finger prints taken before they enter the plane, etc. Also, each plane will have at least 1 armed guard per 10 passangers, and no passengers will be allowed to leave seats for any reason. Adult diapers will be provided by the airline, right next to the where they would normally get a blanket or pillow.

    Those who are so overly concerned about the security on their planes can use this airline. If you are scared to fly because some dude has a beard, fly WASPA. They can use the slogan “WASPA reminds you of your place in society” or “Fly WASPA like the criminal you are.” Or maybe even “WASPA — we just bought new gloves.”

    Let the rest of us citizens who aren’t paralized with fear be treated like adults.

  33. DHS Sec Jar-Jar Johnson complained that the test results were taken out of context.
    What context would that be Mr. Secretary?
    A context of FAILURE?

  34. Nathaniel . although Stephanie `s rep0rt is super… I just bought a top of the range Mercedes sincee geting a check for $4416 this last four weeks and would you believe, ten/k last-month . no-doubt about it, this really is the best-job I’ve ever done . I actually started seven months/ago and almost straight away started making a nice over $79.. p/h….. ?????? http://www.worksite90.com

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