Politics

Report Blasts TSA Revolving Door; Agency Defends Security Measures

November 27, 2011 - 6:00pm

Ten years after it began operations, the Transportation Security Administration has devolved into "bureaucratic morass and mismanagement," according to a scathing new congressional report.

"Since its inception, TSA has lost its focus on transportation security. Instead it has grown into an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy, more concerned with human resource management and consolidating power," charged the report by two House committees.

The report was promptly rejected by TSA officials, who called the nation's aviation system "safer, stronger and more secure" than it was a decade ago. (See the report called "A Decade Later: A Call for TSA Reform" in the attachment below.)

The congressional analysis -- conducted by the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform -- alleged numerous shortcomings at TSA. Among them:

  • Staffing: "TSA is a top-heavy bureaucracy with 3,986 headquartered personnel and 9,656 administrative staff in the field." With more than 65,000 employees, TSA is now larger than the departments of Labor, Energy, Education, Housing and Urban Development and State combined.
  • Turnover: "More employees have left TSA than are currently employed at the agency." TSA has had five administrators in less than a decade, with occasionally long vacancies between appointments.
  • Mission: "TSA has failed to develop an effective, comprehensive plan to evolve from a one-size-fits-all operation -- treating all passengers as if they pose the same risk -- into a highly intelligent, risk-based operation that has the capacity to determine a traveler's level of risk and adjust the level of screening in response."
  • Security: "More than 25,000 security breaches have occurred at U.S. airports in the last decade," despite a 400 percent increase in manpower." The report said 17 "known terrorists" have traveled on 24 different occasions through security at eight airports where TSA operated a Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) behavior detection program.
  • Partnership: "TSA has continuously thwarted the adoption of the Screening Partnership Program and has a history of intimidating airport operators that express an interest in participating in the SPP." TSA Administrator Joe Pistole halted expansion of the program that utilizes private screening contractors, despite a covert TSA test in 2007 that showed significantly higher screening detection capabilities at San Francisco International, an SPP aiport, than at Los Angeles International, where screening is provided by TSA.

The congressional report zeroed in on TSA's handling, or mishandling, of explosive-detection measures.

Fewer than half of the nation's 35 busiest airports have explosive-detection systems, the report stated. Meantime, TSA spent more than $39 million on Explosive Trace Detection Portals ("puffers"). After deploying 101 of 207 puffers, "the agency belatedly discovered they were unable to detect explosives," the report said.

Personnel issues present another ticking time bomb, the congressional study charged.

"Despite TSA's claims that it operates as an intelligent risk-based organization, TSA advertised for employment at the Washington Reagan National Airport on pizza boxes and on advertisements above pumps at discount gas stations in the D.C. area," the study noted derisively.

The cost of hiring and training new employees was pegged at $17,500 per hire, for a total of $2.4 billion since 2002. That's in addition to the $57 billion the agency spent ostensibly securing America's transportation network.

"After countless expensive detours, it is time for TSA to refocus its mission based on risk, and develop common-sense security protocols," said Rep. John Mica, R-Orlando, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

In a statement, TSA spokesperson Sari Koshetz rebuffed the House committees' findings:

"At a time when our countrys aviation system is safer, stronger and more secure than it was 10 years ago, this report is an unfortunate disservice to the dedicated men and women of TSA who are on the front lines every day protecting the traveling public.

"In the past decade, TSA has developed a highly trained federal work force that has safely screened over 5 billion passengers and established a multi-layered security system reaching from curb to cockpit. Every day, we see the effectiveness of these security measures with TSA officers preventing more than 1,100 guns from being brought onto passenger aircraft this year alone."

To improve the agency, the congressional committees outlined 11 proposed reforms, including:

  • Expanding and revising the Screening Partnership Program so that more airport authorities can transition airport screening operations to private contractors under federal supervision.
  • Setting performance standards for passenger and baggage screening based on risk analysis and common sense.
  • Dramatically reducing the number of TSA administrative personnel.
  • Requiring that screening of all passengers and baggage on in-bound international flights be equivalent to U.S. domestic screening standards.
  • Developing an expedited screening program using biometric credentials that allow TSA to positively identify trusted passengers and crew members so that the agency can prioritize its screening resources based on risk.

As an immediate $20 million cost-containment measure, the report suggested that spending on the SPOT program be frozen at 2010 levels until a validation study is completed.

TSA said it recently implemented several "risk-based security measures designed to maintain a high level of security, while improving the overall travel experience, whenever possible."

Among them, the agency says it added enhanced privacy software to its advanced imaging technology units; launched the TSA Pre-check pilot, which prescreens eligible passengers to "potentially expedite their physical screening"; and modified screening procedures for children.

"Each of these initiatives moves us away from a one-size-fits-all approach and enhances our ability to provide the most effective security, focusing on those who present the highest risk, in the most efficient way possible," the agency said in a statement.

Andrew Nappi, a Libertarian-leaning critic of TSA, said the agency is trampling constitutional rights with its VIPR (Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response) teams, consisting of federal air marshals, surface transportation security inspectors, transportation security officers, behavior detention officers and explosive detection canine teams.

"It isn't enough that TSA violates our Fourth and 10th Amendments at airports, which, by the way, are usually not federal property. Its VIPR teams are now intruding upon us in surface transportation modes and highways," said Nappi, Florida director of the Tenth Amendment Center.

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Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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