Congressional Report: TSA Security at O'Hare, Elsewhere Outdated

TSA has failed in a public mandate to assess actual risk

By Phil Rogers
|  Wednesday, Nov 16, 2011  |  Updated 11:04 PM CDT
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Congressional committee called the agency a

Congressional committee called the agency a "backwards looking dinosaur that seeks employees through pizza box advertising and struggles to detect actual terrorist threats."

A congressional committee on Wednesday blasted the Transportation Security Administration as an agency which practices theatrics instead of genuine terror prevention, calling it a “backwards looking dinosaur that seeks employees through pizza box advertising and struggles to detect actual terrorist threats."

The report, from Majority members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, calls the TSA, which oversees security at Chicago’s busy O’Hare and Midway airports, an "enormous, inflexible, and distracted bureaucracy", which is more effective in violating the rights of citizens than in finding those who might cause actual harm. 

Among the findings: 

  • TSA has failed in a public mandate to assess actual risk, continuing, instead, to practice a “one size fits all” approach.
  • Checked baggage screening programs have failed to improve in the agency’s 10 year existence.
  • TSA has failed to deploy complete in-line explosive detection systems in more than half of the nation’s 35 largest airports.  Some are still configured at 1998 explosive detection standards.
  • The agency wasted $39 million to procure 207 explosive trace detection portals, known as “puffers”, but deployed less than half of them because the machines failed to consistently detect explosives.
  • TSA deployed 500 Advanced Imaging Technology devices, at a cost of more than $122 million, but the GAO found that those devices may not have even detected the weapon used by the so-called “underwear bomber” in December 2009.
  • TSA warehouses are packed with millions of dollars worth of screening machines which sit un-used and un-deployed. 

"The agency as a whole has been a colossal disappointment." said Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA).  “The one thing it has been successful at, is violating the rights of the American people.” 

“Instead of worrying about political correctness,” Broun said, “TSA should be putting our resources into intelligence and technologies that could be more effective when it comes to catching highly elusive and dangerous terrorists.” 

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said the agency “invests in tomorrow’s technology to fight yesterday’s threats, and wastes billions of taxpayer dollars in the process.” 

The report notes that since 9/11, the TSA has failed to detect any major terrorist threats, including the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, the Times Square Bomber, and the Toner Cartridge Bomb Plot.  All were thwarted by other agencies, or in some cases, airline passengers. 

But the committee’s strongest criticisms are leveled at what it calls the agency’s poor performance.

“The U.S. has avoided another successful terrorist attack primarily through the actions of passengers and crew, foreign intelligence agencies, and Customs and Border Protection, along with good luck,” the authors write.  “These factors have combined to drastically lower the risk of hijacking from a terrorist with a gun or knife.” 

The report argues that TSA should focus its resources on preventing terrorists from smuggling explosives onto aircraft, not stopping hijackings.  But, it notes, “TSA’s screening policies are based on theatrics”. 

“There are almost daily reports of TSA failures,” the report states.  “But even more alarming, is TSA’s inabiliyze and take advantage of available intelligence.” 

The authors single out one program, Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT), as a colossal waste of taxpayer money.  The SPOT program is designed to train TSA screeners known as Behavioral Detection Officers to identify persons who may pose a security risk.  Since 2007, the program has cost more than $800 million, and will require $1.2 billion more over the next five years. 

The report argues it hasn’t worked. 

“Out of two billion airline passengers who passed through SPOT airports between May 2004 and August 2008, only 1,100 were arrested,” the authors note.  “And none, on terrorism charges.” 

Most shocking of all, the Government Accountability Office says that since SPOT’s inception, at least 17 known terrorists have flown on 24 different occasions, passing through security at SPOT airports. 

The report says the agency spends more than $17,500 to train every employee, a number it decried as “astronomical”.  At the same time, it argues that private screening contractors conduct security screening more efficiently, and at a lower cost.  The authors blast the agency for a high turnover rate with low morale, noting that at Washington Reagan National Airport, advertisements for new recruits were even printed on pizza boxes and above gas pumps at service stations. 

“TSA has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds on failed solutions to securing commercial aviation,” the authors write, “ignoring internal protocols to prevent such waste, and adopting technologies which have repeatedly failed TSA’s own covert tests.” 

In a statement, the TSA called the report an "unfortunate disservice" to its employees and pointed to incidents such as the Christmas 2009 "underwear bomber" incident and a 2010 plot to detonate explosives in the cargo area of planes to prove its effectiveness.

"In the past decade, TSA has developed a highly trained federal workforce that has safely screened over five billion passengers and established a multi-layered security system reaching from curb to cockpit," said TSA spokesman Kawika Riley. "Every day we see the effectiveness of these security measures with TSA officers preventing more than a 1,100 guns from being brought onto passenger aircraft this year alone."

Joint Majority Staff Report: A Call for TSA Reform (.pdf)

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