TSA — A bureaucracy in trouble

Growing from an initial workforce of 16,500 private screeners, TSA now operates with an ever-expanding federal army of more than 62,500 employees, not to mention scores of contractors. The number of employees at TSA exceeds the staff of nearly half a dozen Cabinet agencies. 

TSA’s massive administrative staff includes 3,770 bureaucrats in Washington and more than 9,300 administrative personnel across the country. For the nation’s 447 airports, that’s an average of nearly 30 TSA administrative staff for each airport, before even counting the army of screeners. 

Considering that fewer than 30 U.S. airports handle nearly 75 percent of airline passengers, and keeping in mind the $105,000 average salary for its Washington headquarters staff, even the casual observer can understand why TSA is consumed with protecting its enormous bureaucracy rather than focusing on security.

To justify their positions, Washington TSA bureaucrats regularly request more funding from the agency’s administrator and from Congress. Unfortunately, independent testing of TSA screening performance clearly chronicles that even with more bodies, the latest technology and access to incredible resources, TSA fails in its mission to detect terrorists and real risks. 

Barely a week passes without a new embarrassment. Weapons, known terrorism suspects and even rogue TSA agents regularly violate the costly, porous system. 

TSA’s behavior detection program failed to model the successful Israeli program using agent and passenger interaction to identify suspicious behavior, and was found by the General Accountability Office (GAO) to be a fiasco. Although GAO has recommended not increasing funding for this program, TSA has requested yet another $22 million and 350 more positions to expand this bungled initiative, rather than replace or reform it.

In addition, TSA rarely deploys assets properly to deter threats. The shoe bomber was stopped by passengers and a damp fuse. The liquid bomb plot was foiled by British intelligence. The underwear bomber was prevented by a shoddy device and alert crew and passengers. Saudi intelligence uncovered the cargo package plot. The Times Square bomber was apprehended by Customs and Border Protection after he purchased a last-minute ticket with cash and waltzed past TSA. 

Worker attrition also plagues the agency and inflates agency costs unnecessarily. More than a billion dollars has been spent to train replacements for TSA personnel who have walked away from their jobs. Not even collective bargaining will be enough to quell the discontented screeners who come to work and observe a dysfunctional agency top-heavy with highly paid bureaucrats.

Transportation security is unquestionably the responsibility of the federal government.

However, if TSA is to succeed in keeping us safe, it must recast its mission with security as its highest priority. TSA’s mission must not primarily be maintaining its huge bureaucracy and human resources operation, or appeasing unions. Identifying security threats and risks, and focusing on those few who would do harm to others, must be their foremost objective.

In Europe and most western countries, carefully vetted professional screening forces under strict government standards and oversight perform screening. Private contractors are responsible for passenger screening at more than 80 percent of Europe’s commercial airports. This arrangement allows the government to prioritize gathering intelligence, adapting protocols to current risks and conducting performance audits.

The law creating TSA also provided this model of private screening with federal oversight as an option for U.S. airports. 

Unfortunately, just as GAO found the federal-private model performed significantly better statistically than the all-TSA model, the agency is again protecting its turf, this time by inflating the costs of the program that utilizes private screeners. The government watchdog recently found that TSA cooked the books by failing to account for a number of factors in cost estimates favoring the all-federal model.

TSA has yet to account for all factors to make a viable cost comparison. I believe that once we have an accurate assessment, eliminate a significant number of unnecessary TSA bureaucrats at airports and in Washington, and take into account other factors, a reformed and redirected TSA will provide better security for the traveling public at the best cost to the taxpayer.

Massive bureaucracies even in despotic regimes never operate efficiently, especially as security agencies. Having helped author the original TSA legislation, I can assure you the agency’s present structure and excessive bureaucracy were never intended by Congress.

Until TSA refocuses its mission, this more than $8 billion bureaucracy will continue to grow and fail.

Mica is chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.