TSA Tragedy Turns Talk From Excess Security to Not Enough

Lawmakers have chided the U.S. Transportation Security Administration for screening excesses such as pat-downs that reduced children to tears.

After an agency officer at Los Angeles International Airport was killed at a checkpoint Nov. 1, conversation turned from whether there’s too much security to whether more is needed outside the checkpoint.

“There are folks out there that want to do bad things,” TSA Deputy Administrator John Halinski said at an American Association of Airport Executives conference in Arlington, Virginia, yesterday. “The problem is that front side of the airport is not as strong as it could be. So we have to look at ways to prevent that.”

Ideas for change include arming some TSA officers to enabling roaming teams of specially trained agents to monitor public areas outside checkpoints. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and TSA Administrator John Pistole have said agency and law enforcement coordination needs to be better.

The TSA is mindful this wasn’t the first airport terminal shooting, Halinski said yesterday, citing an incident in Houston earlier this year. It also wasn’t the first such incident at LAX; in 2002, a gunman fired at an airline ticket counter.

Arming TSA

“This is such a point of major vulnerability, and that’s what this incident did for me,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said in an interview yesterday. “We don’t want to increase risk for America. We want to decrease risk for America.”

TSA officers, while they wear badges and police-like uniforms, aren’t trained like police and don’t have arrest powers. The screeners’ union, the American Federation of Government Employees, has called for creating a new class of agency officers with law-enforcement status.

The LAX incident showed there’s a need for more people with weapons in the airport, possibly including some TSA officers, said Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.

“You need to be on top of it where if something breaks out, you have to be able to be there in seconds,” Boxer said in an interview. “It’s something I’m going to take a look at.”

Alternative Measures

Others, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, say there are better ways to secure airports than a weaponized TSA.

“It would be much better if we had continuity in all airports -- as to where people leave, which kind of security we have there, where they come into the airport itself -- without arming everybody,” Reid said in an interview.

House Transportation Security Subcommittee Chairman Richard Hudson, a North Carolina Republican, said there are “practical, risk-based steps that can be taken to combat potential attacks without arming 45,000 TSA screeners.”

Hudson said today he would hold a hearing Nov. 14 on reexamining TSA’s policies and ways to strengthen the agency’s coordination with local police. Pistole is scheduled to testify.

Pistole has floated the idea of broadening use of Visible Intermodal Protection and Response, or VIPR, teams that search other modes of transportation beyond airports. Halinski said that would be among the options discussed next week in a meeting with aviation stakeholders.

Started in 2004 after a train bombing in Madrid, the teams put TSA officers, including behavior detection specialists and explosives experts, with local law enforcement and U.S. air marshals, according to TSA’s website.

Expanding Reach

VIPR teams have conducted random searches at subway stations, bus terminals and sporting events.

Some Republicans in Congress have cited VIPR as an example of mission creep. Representative Scott Garrett, a New Jersey Republican, has introduced legislation to ban those searches outside airports, calling them “security theater.”

One of TSA’s most frequent critics, former House transportation chairman John Mica of Florida, said the agency’s behavior-detection officers, who roam airports and scan checkpoint lines for suspicious people, failed to spot the alleged shooter.

“He was obviously deranged,” said Mica, a Republican who now has oversight of the TSA as a House oversight subcommittee chairman. “Once again, we couldn’t connect the dots. It could have been prevented by some intervention.”

Protecting the 450 U.S. airports where TSA is stationed or retraining 45,000 TSA employees would take a significant funding increase, said Representative Bennie Thompson, senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

The past few Congresses haven’t been willing to increase TSA’s budget, he said in a phone interview.

“You have to decide whether there’s a will in Congress to make additional funds available,” said Thompson, of Mississippi. “It’s a matter of economics.”

Muddled Mission

Responses to the shooting will involve reassessing what the U.S. wants TSA to do, said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Arming the workforce would be costly and may muddle the agency’s mission, he said.

“We have to decide what problem we’re trying to solve,” Nelson said. “If we want them to focus on screening, then it’s a different mission than trying to focus on an active shooter.”

The shooting “personalizes the workforce and shows these people may be potentially in harm’s way,” Nelson said. “Maybe they’ll be treated differently, not only by the American public but by Congress as well.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.