The Transportation Security Administration offers a simple bargain: It demands our shoes, belts, wallets, time and, in some cases, dignity in return for it making air travel safer. But there’s reason to wonder whether the TSA is keeping up its end of the bargain.
ABC News disclosed that undercover government investigators routinely penetrated TSA security with weapons and mock explosives in recent sting operations. According to ABC, undercover investigators slipped past TSA security checkpoints an astounding 67 of 70 times with items that should have set off alarm bells. In one instance, TSA officers failed to find a fake explosive strapped to an investigator’s back.
This distressing report reinforces the stinging congressional testimony of Department of Homeland Security Inspector General John Roth last month. Roth didn’t provide many details of his office’s covert tests, but he said that his investigators identified instances of “human error” and “technology-based failures.” In fact, Roth stated, “human error — often a simple failure to follow protocol — poses significant vulnerabilities.” The inspector general also found that, “despite spending billions on aviation security technology, our testing of certain systems has revealed no resulting improvement.”
In the wake of these and other revelations, the TSA must show that it is providing more than just “security theater.” It has to prove to the public that it will keep up its end of the bargain — that the time invested in airline security, not to mention the TSA’s annual $7.2 billion budget, has serious benefits.
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Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has demanded a personal briefing on the test results, ordered changes based on the findings and dismissed the acting TSA director. That’s a good start, but only a start.
The TSA’s job is not easy: It has to foil every would-be plot, whereas terrorists have to succeed only once to do major damage. At the moment, though, the agency is not even close to inspiring confidence. And if the traveling public concludes that it can’t trust the TSA, there’s a risk of a downward spiral. People will be less cooperative in security lines, and understandably so. Morale among the agency’s nearly 50,000 agents will sink, along with the quality of recruits.
That’s precisely the opposite of what needs to happen: smarter, more focused screening of passengers with sharp, vigilant officers to do the screening.
Homeland Secuity chief Johnson has two tasks: fix the problem, and convince travelers that he has done so.