By Catherine Arney*
This week marks the eleventh anniversary of the inception of the Transportation Security Administration. Despite the agency’s efforts, the layers of security instituted by TSA have been reduced in the public mind to security lines, plastic baggies, and body scanners. A seemingly endless source of controversy, TSA has in the past month faced agents pleading guilty to retaliatory theft, attempted cocaine smuggling, and of accepting bribes to facilitate the smuggling of illegal narcotics through security. Meanwhile, ABC reported that another alleged TSA theft case in Los Angeles could bring the tally to 382 TSA agents fired for theft since the agency’s formation.
These daily public relations crises exacerbate TSA’s more systemic problems. For example, lapses in security screening procedures at Newark Airport resulted in a humiliating audit in October, which reported Newark TSA officers followed proper pat-down procedures just 16.7% of the time and removed banned items from luggage only a quarter of the time. Similar screening problems at Honolulu International Airport led the Department of Homeland Security to investigate and release recommendations in a report released in September. In the report, the Inspector General identified deficiencies in screening procedures, in addition to insufficient supervision and training. Additional training seems necessary not only in procedure but also in sensitivity, as a racial profiling scandal at Logan Airport revealed this summer. Thirty TSA agents filed internal complaints about colleagues targeting minorities with immigration issues and outstanding warrants, expending time better spent on identifying terrorists. Consequently, TSA behavior detection officers in Boston and Detroit will attend a four-hour sensitivity training on why racial profiling is unacceptable and ineffective, particularly in light of the behavior detection program’s goal: to detect potential terrorists rather than other criminal behavior.
So, are the problems so frequently associated with TSA endemic to its growing bureaucracy, or can they be viewed as the inevitable indiscretions of an organization comprised of 50,000 employees screening nearly 1.7 million passengers at 450 locations daily? Any answer is most likely affected by individual political persuasions, but no justification will allow the TSA to escape culpability for an attack the likes of which inspired TSA’s inception.
Of course, the biggest news impacting TSA lately is the first ever collective bargaining agreement between TSA and the American Federation of Government Employees, which was reached on November 9th. TSA agents voted 10-1 in favor of unionization, a decision hailed by some as an opportunity to improve morale amongst TSA agents and foster both fair evaluation practices and improved working conditions. However, Republicans on Capitol Hill have criticized the decision as a further departure from the purpose of TSA, an agency Congress intended to pattern after the CIA and FBI with the purpose of detecting and thwarting further terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. No matter how travelers perceive the wisdom and efficacy of the collective bargaining agreement, they may well be skeptical that unionization will have any effect on the plethora of scandals and indiscretions ceaselessly plaguing the agency.
As we head into Thanksgiving weekend and the holiday season, and as TSA celebrates its eleventh birthday, it is a fitting time to consider measures necessary to revamp TSA procedures and execution. Inefficiencies may be unpalatable, but inadequacies are unacceptable.
* J.D. candidate, Harvard Law School, 2014; A.B., Northwestern University, 2011.
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.