Did you know that the nation’s airports are not required to have Transportation Security Administration screeners checking passengers at security checkpoints? The 2001 law creating the TSA gave airports the right to opt out of the TSA program in favor of private screeners after a two-year period. Now, with the TSA engulfed in controversy and hated by millions of weary and sometimes humiliated travelers, Rep. John Mica, the Republican who will soon be chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is reminding airports that they have a choice.
Mica, one of the authors of the original TSA bill, has recently written to the heads of more than 150 airports nationwide suggesting they opt out of TSA screening.
“When the TSA was established, it was never envisioned that it would become a huge, unwieldy bureaucracy which was soon to grow to 67,000 employees,” Mica writes. “As TSA has grown larger, more impersonal, and administratively top-heavy, I believe it is important that airports across the country consider utilizing the opt-out provision provided by law.”
In addition to being large, impersonal, and top-heavy, what really worries critics is that the TSA has become dangerously ineffective. Its specialty is what those critics call “security theater”—that is, a show of what appear to be stringent security measures designed to make passengers feel more secure without providing real security. “That’s exactly what it is,” says Mica. “It’s a big Kabuki dance.”
Now, the dance has gotten completely out of hand. And like lots of fliers—I spoke to him as he waited for a flight at the Orlando airport—Mica sees TSA’s new “naked scanner” machines and groping, grossly invasive passenger pat-downs as just part of a larger problem. TSA, he says, is relying more on passenger humiliation than on practices that are proven staples of airport security.
For example, many security experts have urged TSA to adopt techniques, used with great success by the Israeli airline El Al, in which passengers are observed, profiled, and most importantly, questioned before boarding planes. So TSA created a program known as SPOT—Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques. It began hiring what it called behavior detection officers, who would be trained to notice passengers who acted suspiciously. TSA now employs about 3,000 behavior detection officers, stationed at about 160 airports across the country.
The problem is, they’re doing it all wrong. A recent Government Accountability Office study found that TSA “deployed SPOT nationwide without first validating the scientific basis for identifying suspicious passengers in an airport environment.” They haven’t settled on the standards needed to stop bad actors.
“It’s not an Israeli model, it’s a TSA, screwed-up model,” says Mica. “It should actually be the person who’s looking at the ticket and talking to the individual. Instead, they’ve hired people to stand around and observe, which is a bastardization of what should be done.”
In a May 2010 letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Mica noted that the GAO “discovered that since the program’s inception, at least 17 known terrorists … have flown on 24 different occasions, passing through security at eight SPOT airports.” One of those known terrorists was Faisal Shahzad, who made it past SPOT monitors onto a Dubai-bound plane at New York’s JFK International Airport not long after trying to set off a car bomb in Times Square. Federal agents nabbed him just before departure.
Mica and other critics in Congress want to see quick and meaningful changes in the way TSA works. They go back to the days just after Sept. 11, when there was a hot debate about whether the new passenger-screening force would be federal employees, as most Democrats wanted, or private contractors, as most Republicans wanted. Democrats won and TSA has been growing ever since.
But the law did allow a test program in which five airports were allowed to use private contractors. A number of studies done since then have shown that contractors perform a bit better than federal screeners, and they’re also more flexible and open to innovation. (The federal government pays the cost of screening whether performed by the TSA or by contractors, and contractors work under federal supervision.)
TSA critics know a federal-to-private change won’t solve all of the problems with airport security. But it might create the conditions under which some of those problems could indeed be fixed. With passenger anger overflowing and new leadership in the House, something might finally get done.
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