TSA Airport Screeners Are Under Siege

Once politically untouchable, government airport screeners are under siege from Congress
Photo Illustration by 731

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.”

Representative John Mica (R-Fla.)
Photograph by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images

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 (R-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 rationally.”

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 airport lines.

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 was created.

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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