A new Government Accountability report shows that private airport screeners do a better job at detecting dangerous object than the bureaucrats at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). This report is the last in a long series, all of which demonstrate the poor performances of the 45,000-employee bureaucracy. So isn’t it time for Congress to acknowledge its mistake and abolish TSA?
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Congress ordered all but five commercial airports to switch from privately employed screeners to a government workforce. Three years after the federal takeover, TSA is inundated with complaints. The GAO reported several times on the agency’s ineffectiveness at providing quality airport screening, while the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) own inspector general showed that passenger screening by the TSA needed to be improved to keep explosives and weapons off commercial aircraft. Also, a joint report by DHS and the Federal Bureau of Investigation warns that security upgrades since the September 11 attacks might have reduced, but certainly not eliminated, the prospect of similar attacks. Finally, for the first time GAO found statistically significant evidence that private-passenger screeners perform better than their federal counterparts.
This incompetence is augmented by fraud, waste, and abuse. For instance, last year the agency spent nearly half a million dollars on an awards ceremony, including $81,000 for plaques. It spent over $200,000 for travel and lodging for attendees and $461,745 were spent at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. where the event took place. And recently, the inspector general report revealed “waste and abuse” in the 2003 construction of the TSA Operation Center in Virginia: Employees bought $500,000 worth of artwork and silk plants and hid the purchases under the label “tool and equipment.” They also routinely used government credit cards to buy leather briefcases and other personal items.
This is no trivial matter considering that we are talking our security and also the amount of money allocated to TSA. TSA’s requested budget for FY2006 is $5.6 billion. And although Congress originally charged the agency with protecting all modes of transportation, it has done little beyond aviation. In fact, 85 percent of TSA’s budget in FY2006–$4.7 billion–will be devoted to air transport. Also, TSA is only responsible for passenger and baggage screening; the airports are still responsible for securing the other aspects of security.
The true cost of TSA to taxpayers goes far beyond the expected $5.6 billion. Sound homeland security requires investing in activities to make America more secure without hindering economic growth. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that if 624 million passengers spend two hours each waiting in line, the aggregate opportunity cost incurred is roughly $32 billion per year.
That’s a lot of money for an agency whose main measure of success is to have “intercepted seven million prohibited items at airport checkpoints, including just over 600 firearms.” What it really means though it that 0.008 percent of items intercepted are actually firearms and that 99.992 percent of intercepted items are tweezers, breath fresheners, and lighters. But is that a real measure of success?
Security experts argue that TSA’s mandate is also poorly focused. The federal government has already spent over $10 billion of taxpayers’ money on systems that screen every passenger to keep knives, weapons, and now lighters off of planes; what we really need, however, is to keep dangerous passengers out of airline cockpits. This can be accomplished with simple cockpit barricades, which the airline industry has now installed at a relatively low costs estimated between $300 million and $500 million over a ten-year period.
Another cost-effective security measure to prevent attacks of the 9/11 variety is to let pilots carry guns. Yet two years after TSA launched a program to train pilots to carry guns in the cockpit, lingering bureaucratic problems and unfriendly responses have dissuaded pilots from participating.
Sadly, in spite of the evidence of TSA’s poor performance, few in Congress talk about reverting to private screeners. According to Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Public Policy Institute, “Global experience in combating terrorism, particularly in Europe and Israel, has clearly demonstrated that the best approach to aviation security relies on private-sector security companies that are held to the highest performance standards but have the flexibility to innovate.” Yet Congress put in place a system that does exactly the opposite. Let’s hope that the new GAO report will pave the way to a much-needed privatization of TSA.
–Veronique de Rugy is a Research Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.