How Not To Fix the TSA

Bureaucracy cannot solve ever-changing threats.

We've been pointing out fundamental flaws with the TSA since as long as there's been a Scragged.  It's gratifying to see that other media are finally beginning to catch on - maybe, over time, even the mainstream media journalists have realized that the guy with the rubber glove is gunning for them too?  Unfortunately but not the least bit unexpectedly, they utterly fail to grasp the root cause of the problem.

The Wall Street Journal published "Why Airport Security is Broken - And How To Fix It" by Kip Hawley, who headed the TSA from June 2005 until Mr. Obama was inaugurated in 2009.  He states the problem succinctly:

More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect. Preventing terrorist attacks on air travel demands flexibility and the constant reassessment of threats. It also demands strong public support, which the current system has plainly failed to achieve.

The basic problem is that the TSA is still responding to the terrorist threat of 9/11 where men armed with box cutters took over airplanes and crashed them into buildings.  As al-Qaeda knows perfectly well, that sort of attack is simply not going to work any more, TSA or no TSA.  Cockpit doors have been reinforced, pilots are armed with axes, and passengers all know that being hijacked is a death sentence unless they take the plane back.  That's why al-Qaeda hasn't tried to do it again that way; even the similar attempts they've made, like the underwear-bomber and shoe bomber, fell foul to alert passengers.

No, the hijacking paradigm has shifted, but the TSA remains mired in the psychology of the previous decade.

The agency is also being micro-managed by Congress:

By the time of my arrival, the agency was focused almost entirely on finding prohibited items. Constant positive reinforcement on finding items like lighters had turned our checkpoint operations into an Easter-egg hunt. When we ran a test, putting dummy bomb components near lighters in bags at checkpoints, officers caught the lighters, not the bomb parts.

I wanted to reduce the amount of time that officers spent searching for low-risk objects, but politics intervened at every turn. Lighters were untouchable, having been banned by an act of Congress. And despite the radically reduced risk that knives and box cutters presented in the post-9/11 world, allowing them back on board was considered too emotionally charged for the American public.  [emphasis added]

What does he suggest?

  • Recognize that a few lightly-armed guys aren't going to be able to take over a plane any more and allow small knives, liquids, and other such objects on board.  His opponents don't believe that American travelers are capable of understanding such advanced concepts as the risk having shifted, but we feel otherwise.
  • Encourage TSA officers to take the initiative by being less bureaucratic.  It's hard to believe he'd suggest this - a non-bureaucratic government agency is a contradiction in terms.  It's even more difficult to imagine exactly how that's supposed to work: how can you possibly rate the workers on planes not blown up or on terrorists captured, when neither has happened even once in the last decade?  It's easy to weigh the piles of confiscated paraphernalia and determine who's doing their job effectively.
  • Ask airlines to eliminate baggage fees so people won't drag so much carry-on luggage through the system.  Fat chance - airlines make billions in fees on which they don't have to pay the taxes levied on air fares.

His major recommendation is to recognize that no system can be 100% risk free.  By trying to block everything on some list, no matter how silly, and publishing lists of what we can't bring aboard, we've become predictable to the point that terrorists know exactly what not to do.

Bureaucracy Uber Alles

The TSA is a classic government bureaucracy which was formed in response to the 9/11 aircraft hijacking.  As with all government "service" providers, TSA employees know that their employer can't be replaced and that customers have to deal with them.  There's no incentive to be efficient or effective.  No matter how many fake bombs they let through, there'll always be a TSA.  

When the TSA was founded, the enabling legislation allowed airports to opt out of having the TSA do their security so long as they hired contractors who met federal standards.  16 airports were wise enough to take the opportunity and replaced the TSA with private contractors.  Tests have shown that these contractors, who know that they can be replaced at the stroke of a pen, find a much better percentage of fake bombs put through their scanners, have shorter lines, and shift people around to match hours of peak demand.

Why don't more airports do this?  Because the legislation allows the TSA to block an airport from opting out.  That's like saying that Burger King could open a new restaurant only with permission from McDonald's.  How many Burger Kings would there be if that rule were in place?

Bureaucratic monopolies hate competition and will do anything to shut down alternatives instead of improving.  Is it any wonder that the TSA has stopped letting airports do this, despite explicit laws forbidding them to do that?

Competition is the only cure for bureaucratic inefficiency whether in schools, medical care, the DMV, or airport security.  The more government accumulates power, the more monopolistic bureaucracies will arise to kill efficiency.

It would be simple to fix the TSA - change the law to let any airport, or even any airline, opt out.  As with charter schools, competition would work its magic and the TSA would either perform or die.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

Accurate assessment of the TSA debacle. I take exception with Offensicht's allowing the TSA to compete in the marketplace or get out. The government has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that it is capable of handling any service to the public. They, along with the NLRB, Dept of Education, Dept of Energy, ad nauseam, should be closed down. And by the way, do not fall for the line that these departments are only a small percentage of the budget and really do not matter. It is this very attitude that has caused the explosion in our debt.

April 30, 2012 11:28 AM

As long as this administration is in power, and Ms Incompetano is head of Homeland Security there will be no changes. As long as Congress is filled with nincompoops there will also be no changes. The idea that a pair of small scissors or a pocket knife or lighter is a weapon is too silly to be even considered.

April 30, 2012 12:08 PM

There will be no reverting the TSA now because the nanny-staters have won the argument. No matter how bad it gets, they will simply ask "what is the alternative"? They will say that that there is no other solution. They will point to terrorism and 9/11, and the American middle class will go along with it. History shows that the best chance the people have to get rid of onerous government is when it is first created. When new laws are passed, society has only a few years to scream and reject it. After that, it becomes a 'baked in' feature of the system. Money, special interests, employees, policy-makers: all become beholden to keeping it. We did not reject it at the beginning so we are stuck with it forever. It will only become harder to revert, not easier. It will only expand its power, not shrink. There's a lesson here for Obamacare. If they can hold on to it just a few years more, they'll have it forever.

May 1, 2012 1:46 PM

TSA is truly ineffective. Here's what a retired TSA official says:

The whole piece is worth your time, but here's a highlight:

We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop.

Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines.

“They’re shit,” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.

We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.

The saga of the first full-body scanners at airports is a testament to government incompetence. Within three years of the machines being ordered, Congress forced the TSA to discard many of them. Now we are told that the machines never worked correctly in the first place. (Mr Harrington links to one blogger's video alleging that a metal object held sideways to the body would not show up on the scanners, and adds that this flaw was "known to everyone I talked to within the agency".) What the scanners did do, though, was allow officers to gawk at Americans' bodies: "Jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues," Mr Harrington reports, to no one's surprise.

February 9, 2014 10:20 PM

Nothing has changed.

all the time. So when Jai Cooper heard sobbing from the back of the security line, it didn't really faze her. As an officer of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), she had gotten used to the strange behavior of passengers. Her job was to check people's travel documents, not their emotional well-being.

But this particular group of tearful passengers presented her with a problem. One of them was in a wheelchair, bent over with her head between her knees, completely unresponsive. "Is she okay? Can she sit up?" Cooper asked, taking their boarding passes and IDs to check. "I need to see her face to identify her."

"She can't, she can't, she can't," said the passenger who was pushing the wheelchair.

Soon, Cooper was joined at her station by a supervisor, followed by an assortment of EMTs and airport police officers. The passenger was dead. She and her family had arrived several hours prior, per the airport's guidance for international flights, but she died sometime after check-in. Since they had her boarding pass in hand, the distraught family figured that they would still try to get her on the flight. Better that than leave her in a foreign country's medical system, they figured.

The family might not have known it, but they had run into one of air travel's many gray areas. Without a formal death certificate, the passenger could not be considered legally dead. And US law obligates airlines to accommodate their ticketed and checked-in passengers, even if they have "a physical or mental impairment that, on a permanent or temporary basis, substantially limits one or more major life activities." In short: she could still fly. But not before her body got checked for contraband, weapons, or explosives. And since the TSA's body scanners can only be used on people who can stand up, the corpse would have to be manually patted down.

"We're just following TSA protocol," Cooper explained.

Her colleagues checked the corpse according to the official pat-down process. With gloves on, they ran the palms of their hands over the collar, the abdomen, the inside of the waistband, and the lower legs. Then, they checked the body's "sensitive areas" - the breasts, inner thighs, and buttocks - with "sufficient pressure to ensure detection."

Only then was the corpse cleared to proceed into the secure part of the terminal.

Not even death can exempt you from TSA screening.

September 3, 2022 6:57 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...