After 20 Years of Failure, Kill the TSA

The agency is far more of a threat than the dangers from which it supposedly protects us.


On this day in 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created in a demonstration that the Keystone Kops are always prepared to exploit a crisis. In the ensuing two decades, the TSA has proven itself skilled at harassing travelers and freaking out over pocketknives and water bottles while steadfastly failing at its assigned task of making air transportation any safer. The TSA, in short, is an awful example of government in action.

"On the morning of September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people were killed in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia," the TSA summarizes in its official history. "The attacks resulted in the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, designed to prevent similar attacks in the future."

The TSA launched with the passage of the Aviation and Transportation and Security Act on November 19, 2001. The new law nationalized passenger screening, which previously had been the responsibility of airlines. It's not clear why anybody saw a need for the TSA, since it's unlikely that a federal agency would have been any more successful than private contractors at predicting terrorists' unprecedented use of aircraft as kamikaze weapons. It's especially unlikely that the federal agency we actually got would have successfully diverted itself from confiscating play-doh to thwarting homicidal fanatics.

"The TSA is failing to defend us against the threat of terrorism," security expert and frequent TSA critic Bruce Schneier pointed out in 2015. "The only reason they've been able to get away with the scam for so long is that there isn't much of a threat of terrorism to defend against."

"Terrorists are much rarer than we think, and launching a terrorist plot is much more difficult than we think," Schneier added. "I understand this conclusion is counterintuitive, and contrary to the fearmongering we hear every day from our political leaders. But it's what the data shows."

What set Schneier off in 2015 was a report from ABC News that "internal investigation of the Transportation Security Administration revealed security failures at dozens of the nation's busiest airports, where undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials."

The TSA blog carries constant reports of weapons confiscated from people who forgot to remove them from carry-on bags. But the Homeland Security Red Teams in the 2015 test actively concealed forbidden items just as real criminals and terrorist would. The result was that "TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints."

Two years later, a Red Team test at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport achieved the same 95 percent failure rate to detect explosives, weapons, and illegal drugs. Repeat national tests in 2017 also went badly, "in the ballpark" of an 80 percent failure rate.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg of abject failure represented by the TSA. The agency repeatedly has been called out for spending vast amounts of money on unproven toys and techniques and then failing to assess their effectiveness—or just leaving them to gather dust.

"TSA is wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars by inefficiently deploying screening equipment and technology to commercial airports," a report compiled by staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure found in 2012. Among other things, of 472 carry-on baggage screening machines purchased for deployment at airports, 99 percent had been stuck in storage for more than nine months. Some equipment remained warehoused for the majority of its usable lifespan.

The same year, after widely publicized security breaches at Newark Liberty International Airport, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General found that TSA at the airport "took corrective actions for only 42% of the security breaches shown in its records." At six airports visited, breaches were addressed only 53 percent of the time.

In fact, the DHS Inspector General has long been a thorn in the TSA's side, compiling a still-growing collection of critical reports. In 2015, the TSA grew so upset with the criticism that it went so far as to classify some findings as "sensitive security information" in order to suppress distribution.

"Over-classification is the enemy of good government. SSI markings should be used only to protect transportation security, rather than, as I fear occurred here, to allow government program officials to conceal negative information within a report," then-Inspector General John Roth protested.

What the TSA is good at is high-visibility groping, scanning, and confiscating. Making people drop their pants, take off their shoes, and surrender their shampoo annoys people in a way that says "we're doing something" without actually accomplishing anything. It's what Schneier calls "security theater." 

"Airport security has to change," Kip Hawley, one-time head of the TSA wrote in 2012. "The relationship between the public and the TSA has become too poisonous to be sustained."

"Much of the friction in the system today results from rules that are direct responses to how we were attacked on 9/11," he added. "But it's simply no longer the case that killing a few people on board a plane could lead to a hijacking. Never again will a terrorist be able to breach the cockpit simply with a box cutter or a knife. The cockpit doors have been reinforced, and passengers, flight crews and air marshals would intervene."

Instead of making headlines with reform, though, the TSA has become better-known for stealing money from travelers. In September, news reports called out the case of TSA working with other agencies to seize $27,600 from a Texas man, apparently because he was traveling to Oregon where marijuana is legal in conflict with federal law; he was never charged with a crime. Last year, the Institute for Justice reported that TSA and its sister agencies at Homeland Security "seized over $2 billion in currency at airports" between 2000 and 2016.

"Law enforcement agencies routinely seize currency from travelers at airports nationwide using civil forfeiture—a legal process that allows agencies to take and keep property without ever charging owners with a crime, let alone securing a conviction," noted author Jennifer McDonald.

After 20 years of failure, the Transportation Security Administration continues to waste resources, harass travelers, and actively mug air passengers. It is far more of a threat than the dangers from which it supposedly protects us. At long last, let's put the agency out of our misery.