Bloomberg News

TSA’s Insensitivity Impedes Security, House Panel Says

September 12, 2012

Eleven years after the terrorist attacks that led to its creation, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration must become a “leaner, smarter organization,” Representative Mike Rogers said yesterday.

Rogers, an Alabama Republican who leads the House Homeland Security subcommittee on transportation security, said TSA should rely more on private companies to screen passengers for possible terrorism threats.

“The agency has gone down a troubling path of overspending, limiting private-sector engagement, and failing to sufficiently protect passenger privacy,” Rogers said at a hearing yesterday on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Rogers released a subcommittee report that said TSA is bogged down in defending unpopular airport screening procedures that may not match current threats.

The agency has been too reactive, imposing screening procedures that respond to past terror plots while not doing enough to anticipate the next threat, according to the report. Once implemented, procedures aren’t revisited to ensure they still make sense, the committee said.

“Eleven years after 9/11, the American people expect to see tangible progress in transportation security, with effective operations that respect both their privacy and their wallets,” the committee report said. “The private sector is best suited to this challenge, not the federal government.”

Increased Scrutiny

Yesterday’s report and hearing follow 22 other hearings, 15 lawmaker briefings and seven site visits by the subcommittee’s members and staff since last year. The agency has been subjected to increased scrutiny as some efforts, such as pat-downs and the addition of screening machines that produced detailed images of travelers under their clothes, provoked consumer outrage.

The TSA is committed to working with industry and regularly seeks advice on policy from airlines, airports and travelers, among others, John Halinski, the agency’s deputy administrator, told lawmakers at the hearing.

“As the memories of 9/11 slip by for many, we at TSA cannot afford to forget what our job is,” Halinski said. “We cannot be distracted by critics and others who forget we face a threat.”

The agency replaced guards hired by airlines with federal employees after Sept. 11 to to reassure the public that each passenger and each bag would be screened, said Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, the panel’s senior Democrat.

“I do not want us to be lax on procedures that have provided a safe passage for billions of travelers since 9/11,” Jackson Lee said.

Explaining Pat-Downs

TSA hasn’t adequately explained why it is using invasive pat-downs, the committee’s report said. Americans would be more supportive of the agency’s practices if they understood why TSA was implementing a policy or what threat it was addressing, it said.

“Pat-downs have hit a nerve with the general public, and TSA has failed to adequately explain why it continues to use this procedure two years after its initial rollout,” the committee said.

Many of the TSA’s problems are self-inflicted, and result from the strains of managing its bureaucracy and multibillion- dollar technology contracts, the committee said. It said that after spending $29.6 million on 207 explosive-detecting “puffer” machines in 2006, the agency found the machines wouldn’t work in dirty, humid airport environments. The machines were ultimately removed and destroyed.

Passenger Traffic

The TSA’s workforce has grown as airline passenger traffic has fallen, the committee said.

“A private-sector entity in the face of a shrinking customer base usually must downsize,” the committee said. “TSA, by contrast, has continually grown its ranks despite fewer travelers.”

The TSA’s costs per passenger have been rising rapidly, said Geoff Freeman, chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association, a Washington-based trade group for tourism agencies and providers. The agency’s budget increased 68 percent from 2004 to 2011, while the number of passengers was little changed, Freeman said.

With passenger levels expected to double over the next 20 years, TSA needs to balance security with moving travelers through the airport more efficiently, Freeman said. Millions of people avoid travel because of time-consuming, frustrating checkpoints, he said.

“The real threat of terrorism, the economic consequences of inefficient screening, and increase in screening costs, add up to create one of the biggest problems facing the travel industry today,” Freeman said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net


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