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Security Theater and the TSA

Armed Guard At Airport
Security Theater and the TSA

Is our Transportation Security Administration (TSA) an efficient agency to tackle crime and to protect Homeland Security?  Perhaps Trump needs to make this a priority.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which is charged with the responsibility of ensuring the safety of travelers at airports and other commercial travel modalities, is a failure of monumental proportions.  Instead of providing pre-boarding security, it presents travelers with a dangerously bad play.  The agency appear to be doing its job, but in reality provides little more than “Security Theater”.

In a 2016 survey by the Inspector General (IG) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), there was a 95% miss by the TSA of test weapons and other contraband carried into commercial aircraft cabins by IG special agents working undercover.  Earlier this year, JetBlue TSA checkpoints at New York’s JFK Airport were left unattended by agency employees, creating a frantic law enforcement search for people who had boarded and flown without being properly screened.

Adding insult to injury, the TSA announced that it will be increasing its highly intrusive personal frisks and pat-downs of passengers, primarily because the agency keeps missing unlawful items brought by passengers on their person or in carry-on baggage.

While few question the need for the best possible boarding security at transportation facilities, the TSA has yet to fully deploy their full-body scanners.  These eliminate the need for screeners to physically search everyone, but rather only mandate more thorough searches of those people whose initial scans looked suspicious.  The agency has failed to promulgate regulations mandating that all people going through their checkpoints have a full body scan.  The claims of exposure to dangerous radiation from these units, made by some, have no scientific merit, as the scanners subject a person to less radiation than a series of digital dental x-rays, or even the cosmic radiation people get while in-flight.  Yet the TSA has done nothing to dispel these irrational fears.

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In terms of hiring and training TSA screeners, the standards are bottom-of-the barrel.  Poor vetting of candidates and very low pay are crucibles for problems.  Many TSA high-level supervisors, from airport directors to Agency Administrators, have been forced out, or terminated, for overall poor performance.  This kind of bad management trickles down to the rank and file, which is another reason why so many TSA screeners have been terminated for ineptitude, and others arrested for various criminal schemes ranging from theft of passenger valuables at checkpoints or baggage areas, to drug smuggling.  For an agency that must deal with the public every day, at various types of transit facilities and has been in existence for well over a decade, this is an inexcusable record of failure.  It strongly suggests that the TSA should be abolished, with its duties turned over to well-trained airline, ship or railroad personnel working under the direct supervision of specialized law enforcement professionals, to wit, the officers of  the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service.

CBP personnel are experts at finding contraband on arriving passengers and their belongings.  They have full federal law enforcement powers, extensive training in observing people for tell-tale signs that they may be carrying prohibited items, and go through a rigorous selection process before being hired.  Officer candidates undergo about a year of training before they are put in the field to interact with the public.  They have expertise in cargo inspection, which makes them perfect for supervising the examination of checked baggage and other items placed in the holds of aircraft and other common carriers transporting passengers and goods.

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Emplacing CBP officers with private security screeners, at all checkpoints, would accomplish a number of things.  It would shift most of the costs associated with TSA from the general public to the private carriers, who could then charge a security fee to passengers or shippers, so that users and not the general public would defray most of the costs of these examinations.  CBP personnel would use their skills at profiling suspicious behavior to choose those passengers who need more extensive screenings, including physical body searches, rather than the current system of random secondary selections, which rarely produces any results, other than to irritate travelers and delay boarding.  If contraband is found, CBP officers can immediately take the offenders into custody, eliminating the need to wait for police to arrive, during which everyone at the checkpoint is in danger of situational escalation.  And the presence of armed, uniformed CBP officers at these locations acts as a deterrent to random acts of violence, or attempts to get past checkpoints by force.

The TSA is costly, inefficient, causes needless delays at its checkpoints, and does little to protect travelers on commercial airlines, ships, buses and railroads.  It has already been threatened with eviction from several airports, one of which, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, is the busiest in the world.  Fixing this increasingly unworkable system will require Congress to act, gradually shutting down the TSA while authorizing CBP officers to routinely supervise security at all common carrier checkpoints.  But it is doable and should be a domestic priority for the Trump Administration, which claims to be focused on cutting government spending and increasing our domestic security.  This would be a good start.


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Martin Schwartz
About Martin Schwartz 13 Articles
Martin Schwartz was a N.Y. police officer, a U.S. Treasury Special Agent (criminal investigator) attached to the U.S. Customs Service, an assistant district attorney in NYC, a special assistant U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York (Manhattan) and a special counsel to the U.S. Department of Justice. He is now a writer with prior published work in the N.Y. Times, U.S. News & World Report, U.S.A. Today and Newsday, and a consultant to law enforcement.
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