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Judd Gregg: The TSA tragedy

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The Transportation Security Administration is an agency that really is lost.

The TSA was created in the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when everything was a bit chaotic. 

As a government and as a nation, we were desperate to take actions — and put in place systems — that would avoid a repeat of that horrific day.  

{mosads}Since the attacks had come through the air, air security was one of the obvious and necessary places to begin. Thus the TSA arose. 

But like so many things that are created in haste to address an immediate need or threat, reforms are needed. The threat changes over time and the manner of addressing that threat also needs to change.

In the world of government and bureaucracy such adjustments tend to be problematic, however. This is what has happened with the TSA. The agency is locked in a time warp and people who need to get on airplanes are locked in absurdly long lines.  

It is appropriate in trying to understand the depth of this problem to review a few facts that were there at the start, when the TSA was born.

First and most important is the event of 9/11 itself. 

What made this attack so devastating was something that should have been obvious to anyone interested in how terrorists might try to harm us. 

Specifically, it was the use of a commercial airplane filled with fuel as a missile, guided by individuals who were fanatical enough to be willing to sacrifice their lives to deliver this weapon to its target. 

Novels had been written using this premise.   

But, for reasons never fully explained, no one in the business of protecting our nation had ever come up with a serious strategy to neutralize this threat. 

That failure was one of the gravest acts of malfeasance by any government in our history, only equaled by those who overlooked the known and clear threat to Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The answers to the problem turned out to be rather simple. Secure the cockpit of the airplane. Require that there always be at least two crew members in the cockpit at all times. Include some undercover air marshals to strengthen on-board security. 

To a large degree, once these actions were taken, the threat of using an airplane to attack iconic American sites and kill Americans was removed.

There is of course still the issue of protecting people traveling on airplanes from being blown out of the sky. But this was not the issue or the threat that needed to be addressed resulting from 9/11.

The TSA failed to detect ninety percent of the bombs and weapons that were passed through its passenger screening system in its last test. Were the test also applied to baggage placed on planes, it is likely that their failure rate in detecting bombs specifically would be even higher.

Thus, an agency that costs the taxpayer $7.5 billion a year, has 40,000-plus screeners and 15,000-plus administrators does not seem to be doing a very good job of protecting passengers on airplanes.

One would expect that a major rethinking and repositioning of its resources might be in order.

But here we run into the second fact arising from the original events that surrounded the TSA’s creation.

There was considerable concern at the time that the TSA would end up over time becoming just another large, unwieldy, marginally functional federal bureaucracy. 

Numerous discussions were had in the Senate over how to avoid such a development. The leader of this effort was the late Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.). 

In caucus, he made the point aggressively that this agency must be a quasi-military type organization with absolute flexibility. The management of this new security agency needed to have the ability to adjust to threats, move people around and fire security people who were not up to par.

Specifically as a result of Conrad Burns’s insistence, it was agreed that the new agency would not be allowed to unionize, just as is the case with the military.

Of course, President Obama reversed the no-union policy for the TSA in one of the first acts of pay-off to labor for its support in his 2008 election.

We are just now beginning to see the effects of this reversal.    

The long lines are in large part due to union rules on work and movement of workers. But even more serious is the fact that we now have this massive agency that is in a straitjacket, unable to react effectively to the threats of today because it is a union organization, not a national defense organization.

There is an important role for the TSA in our continuing war with fanatical, Islamic terrorists and the need to protect the American public and our infrastructure more broadly. But the agency is lost, wandering about. 

In fact, if anything, it has created a new and real threat from terrorists. Masses of passengers waiting in long lines outside the security area are a soft and attractive target for our enemies, as we saw in Belgium.

TSA needs a complete rethink — beginning with repealing its union status, so it has the flexibility it needs in order to do the job it was created to do.

Otherwise, maybe its funding should be sent over to the NSA, CIA and FBI so it can be used by those more effective agencies to find the terrorists before they can do us harm. 

That way, we could leave airplane security primarily to the airlines, just as they do in Europe.

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.


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