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"Government Airport Screeners Are Under Siege"
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Government Airport Screeners Are Under Siege
By Jeff Plungis
Representative John Mica, the law-and-order Florida Republican who chairs
the House Transportation Committee, helped create a government department
many Americans have come to despise more than the IRS: the Transportation
Security Administration. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was
hard for anyone to argue against a trained corps of officers dedicated to
keeping terrorists off airplanes. As the TSA grew larger and more expensive
in the decade since Mica had second thoughts. He envisioned TSA having
around 16,000 screeners. Instead, the number swelled to more than
50,000-without much evidence that all those blue shirts reminding people to
take off their shoes are making anyone safer. Dozens of incidents, many
caught on video, in which TSA workers have screwed up (missing a loaded
pistol stashed in a carry-on bag in Los Angeles) or thrown their weight
around for no apparent reason (harassing a young mom in Phoenix who packed
breast milk for her baby) have made the TSA an object of public derision.
Not exactly the desired result for an agency charged with instilling
confidence. "We have an army of bureaucrats that's running this huge system
that's dysfunctional and is protecting its turf," says Mica, who finally
reached his limit when he saw a TSA help-wanted ad printed on a pizza box.
Now he wants to cut the size of the $7.8 billion agency dramatically and
hand over airport screening to private security companies. He says travelers
weary of the indignities of the security line are on his side: "The pressure
is building. It makes my job easier."
If politicians were once wary of criticizing the TSA for fear of appearing
soft on terror, they aren't any longer. Representative Marsha Blackburn
(R-Tenn.) has introduced a bill that would strip TSA airport screeners of
their badges and police-style uniforms, which she says give them an
undeserved appearance of authority. (It's not likely to pass.) Senator Susan
Collins (D-Me.) is calling for an independent investigation into whether
airport body scanners emit harmful levels of radiation, despite the TSA's
assurances that they don't.
In February, TSA officials were called before a congressional committee to
explain the findings of a Homeland Security Inspector General report
detailing allegations of sexism and racial bigotry among the thousands of
employees at the Federal Air Marshal Service, which is also run by the TSA.
(The government won't say exactly how many people work there, citing
national security.) TSA Administrator John Pistole said investigators didn't
find any problems that interfered with the Air Marshals' security mission
and told Congress he fired those who acted unprofessionally.
That won't take the pressure off the agency. "The reality is the terrorists
have adapted to our security measures and changed their tactics," says
Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Transportation
security subcommittee. He questions whether the Marshal program is still
worth the $1 billion it costs each year. Rogers's colleague, Representative
Peter King (R-N.Y.), says he's warned Pistole about a "hysterical anti-TSA
message that's building up" around the country and in Congress. "With the
public anger that's out there, people have to be assured the clear abuses
will stop," says King, who leads the House Committee on Homeland Security.
"We have to convince people that what's being done is being done
Pistole, formerly deputy director of the FBI, declined to be interviewed. In
a statement, he said: "After coming on board, I assessed that TSA could
provide more effective security in a more efficient manner by using a
risk-based, intelligence-driven process. The strategy involves moving away
from the one-size-fits-all construct implemented by necessity after 9/11."
To do that, he's embraced a new TSA program, PreCheck, which is aimed at
reducing the number of steps passengers must endure to get through TSA
Those approved for the program can breeze through security with shoes on,
belts buckled, and liquids tucked away. Pilot programs are already in place
at Ronald Reagan National Airport outside Washington, Salt Lake City,
Detroit, Los Angeles, and New York's JFK. Pistole hopes PreCheck will expand
to 35 airports by year's end.
But there's a catch-actually, there are several. Most people won't get in,
at least not anytime soon. It's up to airlines to recommend passengers for
the program, and so far they've reserved the privilege for their most valued
frequent fliers-in part because they pose the lowest security risk and in
part because it's good business. The pass isn't interchangeable: A passenger
approved by one airline doesn't get the special treatment when flying on
another. And membership doesn't guarantee privileges: The TSA can still
single you out for regular-guy screening without explanation.
Citing security, the TSA won't divulge how passengers are chosen for
PreCheck or how many have been approved. It will only say the special
checkpoints have been used 336,000 times since the program began last fall.
Not surprisingly, the program has the support of the airline industry. With
annual passenger volume expected to reach more than 1 billion trips by 2020,
"it's no longer going to be viable to screen everyone in the same fashion
and use technology-heavy security methods," says Erik Hansen of the U.S.
Travel Association in Washington. "They're going to have to move more and
more to passenger vetting before you show up at the airport."
Mica agrees and doesn't think PreCheck goes nearly far enough. He's pushed
to allow airports to replace TSA with private screeners-like before the
Sept. 11 attacks, when airlines were responsible for operating checkpoints.
Last month, Mica got his way when President Obama signed a Federal Aviation
Administration funding bill that included the provision. Now the TSA must
let airports go private unless it can show doing so would compromise
security. Orlando's and Sacramento's airports have already applied. If TSA
approves, they'll join San Francisco, Kansas City, Mo., and 14 smaller
airports that the government allowed to retain private security when the TSA
Pistole told lawmakers he'll work with airports that want to switch to
private screeners, but he clearly isn't happy about it. He argues it won't
save money, reduce hassles, or increase safety. Mica is willing to take the
risk. He says it was a mistake for the government to allow the TSA to swell
into an army of people standing at airport checkpoints when a smaller agency
that oversees travelers' safety makes more sense. "No one is saying take TSA
out of the picture," he says. "We're saying take them out of the screening
business and put them back into the security business."
The bottom line: In the decade since the TSA was created, the number of
government airport screeners has more than tripled, from 16,000 to 51,000.
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