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The TSA's lax performance amounts to security theater

The TSA's lax performance amounts to security theater
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The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), charged with ensuring the safety of travelers at airports and certain other commercial transport facilities, is failing in many ways. While it may appear the agency is doing its job, evidence to the contrary abounds.

In a 2016 survey by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General (IG), the TSA missed 95 percent of the weapons and assorted contraband carried into commercial aircraft cabins by undercover investigators. A notable example this year suggested the TSA still has serious shortcomings despite the red flag: JetBlue TSA checkpoints at New York's Kennedy Airport were left unattended by agency employees, creating a frantic law enforcement search for people who had boarded and flown without being screened.

Adding insult to injury, the TSA announced that it will be gradually increasing its highly intrusive personal frisks of passengers, primarily because the agency keeps missing prohibited items brought by travelers on their person or in carry-on luggage.

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While few question the need for the best possible pre-boarding security at our transportation facilities, the TSA has yet to fully deploy the nearly foolproof full-body scanners. These eliminate the need for screeners to physically search every passenger, restricting physical examination to people whose scans appear suspicious. The agency promised but never promulgated regulations to require full body scans of all travelers passing through TSA checkpoints.

 

In terms of hiring and training TSA screeners, the standards are bottom-of-the barrel. Poor vetting of candidates and very low pay are crucibles for problems. Many TSA high-level supervisors, from airport directors to agency administrators have been forced out for overall poor performance. This kind of bad management trickles down to the rank and file, which is another reason so many TSA screeners have been fired while others arrested for various criminal schemes ranging from theft of passenger valuables at checkpoints or baggage areas, to drug smuggling.

For an agency that must deal with the public every day at transit facilities, and that has existed for well over a decade, this is an inexcusable record of failure. It strongly suggests that the TSA should be abolished, with its duties turned over to well-trained airline, ship or railroad personnel working under the direct supervision of specialized law enforcement professionals, namely officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

CBP personnel are experts at finding contraband on travelers and in their belongings. They have full federal law enforcement powers, extensive training in observing people for tell-tale signs that they may be concealing prohibited items, and go through a rigorous selection process before being hired. Officer candidates undergo about a year's training before they are put in the field. They have expertise in cargo inspection, which makes them perfect for supervising the examination of checked baggage and other items placed in the holds of aircraft and other common carriers.

Placing CBP officers with private security screeners at all checkpoints would accomplish a number of things. It would shift some of the costs associated with TSA from the general public to the private carriers, who could then charge a graduated security fee to passengers or shippers so that users, rather than the general public, would defray most of the costs of these examinations. CBP personnel would use be able to use their training to exercise discretion and profile suspicious behavior to choose those passengers who need more extensive screenings, including physical body searches, rather than the current system of random secondary selections, which rarely produce any results.

If contraband is found, CBP officers could immediately take offenders into custody, eliminating the need to wait for police to arrive. And the presence of armed, uniformed CBP officers at these locations would act as a deterrent against random acts of violence or attempts to get past checkpoints by force.

The TSA is costly, inefficient, causes needless delays at its checkpoints, and does little to protect travelers on commercial airlines, ships, buses and railroads. It has already been threatened with eviction from several airports. One of those airports, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, is the busiest in the world.

Fixing this increasingly unworkable system will require Congress to act, gradually shutting down the TSA while authorizing CBP officers to routinely supervise security at all common carrier checkpoints. But it is doable and should be a priority for the Trump administration, which claims to be focused on cutting government spending and increasing our domestic security. Let's see if those promises can, in part, be kept.

Martin W. Schwartz is an attorney based in New York. He worked previously as an assistant district attorney in Bronx County, a special counsel for the U.S. Department of Justice-FBI, and for more than a decade as a special agent for the U.S. Customs Service, retiring as a security and intelligence officer.