You haven't heard me talk much about the TSA lately and the nationwide fervor over the agency has seemingly died down. One reason is Preâ, a "trusted traveler" program that allows passengers who submit to background checks to bypass the excessive and theatrical security screenings most casual travelers still endure at U.S. airports. Another reason is a change in technology that has made full body scanners less obtrusive from a privacy-rights perspective.
But the agency is still full of holes. Last week in a story about the TSA allowing a bomb to slip through at Newark Airport, I shared about an extremely rude agent I recently encountered. Aside from basic competence, professionalism remains a huge issue in the agency. Theatre remains a problem as well--as if two 3.5oz bottles can do less damage than one 4oz bottle. And now the TSA is using sequester to threaten a further diminution of service (yet they still found the funding for $50mn in new uniforms).
Enter Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and frequent flyer hater (who seemed a little sad that I never contacted him when I was thrown off the United flight). One thing I'll give Elliott credit for is that he is not a TSA shill. He has helped to keep the agency accountable and notes in a recent column that until the following occurs, he will not let up his vigilance--
Decommission all full-body scanners. The technology is unproven and potentially dangerous. The expense can't be justified to the American taxpayer.
Fix the screening process. Every airline passenger should be checked in a way that is non-invasive, doesn't involve harmful radiation and respects their civil rights and the U.S. Constitution. We know the current system doesn't do that. Let's find something that does.
Kill VIPR. The TSA's Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response team, which patrols roads, NFL games and political conventions, needs to be shuttered now. No one asked for these ad hoc teams of TSA agents and no one will miss them.
Restructure the agency. The TSA needs to trim its $8-billion-a-year budget by eliminating a vast layer of ineffective middle management and reducing the size of its force, which is often referred to as "Thousands Standing Around."
Retrain TSA's workforce. Frontline TSA agents like to see themselves as the last line of defense against terrorism. They aren't. Rather, they are the face of the federal government, and at the moment, it's not a good one. Agents need basic customer-service training, and they need to be aware of the civil rights and disabilities concerns of passengers.
All excellent points. While I would love to see full body scanners immediately decommissioned, the VIPR teams disbanded, and half the white collar staff of the agency axed, the last point is most important from a practical perspective.
Talk to many TSA employees and they really do believe they are the public's "last line of defense" against terrorism. Many also cling to the false notion that they are pseudo law-enforcement officers. They are neither: they are clerks.
And that is not a dig against TSA screeners, it is simply a reality. I would strip them of their badges and retrain them with heavy emphasis on customer service. Until the TSA mindset changes, I'd rather have (present day) Moscow-style security.
The five-step roadmap above is a reasonable one, but it will not be easy. With politicians on both sides of the aisle pandering to the "security-first" constituency, it is only by remaining vocal that we can slowly tame an agency that remains out of control.