TSA: Living on Borrowed Time?

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year. At TSA headquarters alone, there are 3,526 staff whose average salary tops $106,000. And while the TSA has gotten very good at groping airline passengers and undressing them with full body scans, the organization has yet to prevent a single terrorist attack. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation released last spring revealed that at least 17 known terrorists have been able to pass through TSA security totally unhindered.


“GAO [also] found that TSA completely bungled the development and deployment of a behavior detection program for the nation’s airports,” says Congressman John L. Mica (R-FL), who helped write the Aviation and Transportation Security Act in the wake of 9/11.

That law gave birth to the TSA. Now, Congressman Mica is spearheading the effort to partially disband the agency he helped create, seeking to replace TSA screeners with private contractors. Is this the beginning of the end of the TSA?

Let’s hope so.

A letter has gone out from Congressman Mica to one hundred of the nation’s busiest airports, urging each of them to consider switching over to private contractors for security screening. Thanks to an “opt-out” provision written into the Act, these contracts are a viable alternative to the current federal screening workforce provided by TSA. Eighteen private contracts have already been awarded to various U.S. airports and heliports, working efficiently and safely for over five years.

In December of 2005, the Sioux Falls Regional Airport in South Dakota became the first airport to exercise this right. TSA continues to maintain oversight for private screeners, providing the equipment and training on screening machines, and provides airports with a Federal Security Director, or FSD, to oversee operations. What this means is that the primary element of change for an airport with a private security contract is simply the attitude of its employees. For-profit corporations tend to have friendlier — or at least less hostile — employees.


This news has caused many flyers to ask a simple question. Is happiness at the airport synonymous with safety? It certainly can be. Though it ranks among the top terrorist targets in the world, one rarely hears about security screening nightmares at Ben Gurion International Airport — which brings flyers to a more important question. Why haven’t more U.S. airports already considered using private contractors?

Israel — the nation that sets the gold standard for aviation security — uses mostly private security at Ben Gurion. Many El Al Airlines employees are trained by Israel’s version of the Secret Service, but they work for a private corporation, not the government of Israel.

These screeners don’t have to act tough, they are tough, employing screening techniques based on psychological and behavioral profiling. Henrich Ditze, a German television cameraman who regularly flies out of Ben Gurion, shared his experience with Fox News. Security officers always ask him “lots of questions,” he explained. “They’re checking everything. … They look very seriously into your eyes. … It can make you nervous even if you don’t have to hide anything.”
Fox’s interview with Ditze was part of an exclusive story on DHS chief Janet Napolitano’s recent trip to Israel, where she visited Ben Gurion Airport, met with its head of security, and toured Israeli airline security in action. To Fox and other media organizations, Napolitano downplayed the suggestion that TSA would counter public outrage over enhanced screening procedures by adopting Israeli-style security measures. But the public senses that we may soon see the end of the TSA as we know it.


In America, after a holiday season rife with body scanning backlash, many of the nation’s airports have admitted they could eliminate TSA screeners altogether. Officials at Dulles International as well as Reagan National Airport say they are are actively considering such a switch. As the Washington Post reports: “lawmakers and lobbyists estimated that one in four of the nation’s airports expressed interest in switching to private security firms.”

Will TSA push back? With its army of 67,000 workers, its new partnership to provide security on Amtrak trains, and its ever-growing budgets, it’s difficult to imagine that TSA officials will let go of the bureaucracy’s money, power and control without a fight.

Bring it on.


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