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Private Screening Could Solve TSA Theft Issues

Baruch Feigenbaum
May 9, 2012, 1:36pm

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is hiring screeners without adequately checking their backgrounds. Recently, the TSA purchased equipment that does not work, mishandled screening of congressional members and allowed a loaded gun on a plane.

According to Bloomberg:

The arrest April 25 of two current and two former TSA screeners at Los Angeles International Airport marked the third bribery case involving agency employees this year. Also in April, a TSA screener admitted to accepting $1,200 in bribes from drug traffickers sending the narcotic oxycodone from Florida to Connecticut through an airport in White Plains, New York.

Agency officers have also been accused of stealing iPads, cash, laptops and jewelry from baggage.

“This pattern suggests there’s something wrong in the vetting process TSA uses in hiring and screening its own people,” said Robert Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, which advocates for free market solutions to policy issues. “It’s certainly a question Congress should be asking.”

All TSA security officers undergo thorough criminal background checks, submitting their fingerprints to the FBI and cross-checking names against terrorist watch lists, Kawika Riley, a TSA spokesman, said in an e-mail. 

Further:

Applicants are supposed to be disqualified for any one of 28 criminal offenses ranging from interference with navigation to espionage, treason and felony arson. Theft and bribery felonies are on the list, as are unpaid taxes, child support arrears or $7,500 in delinquent debt.

The TSA said in a 2008 post on its official blog that more than 200 employees had been fired for theft. Last year, taking a closer look at agency numbers, the news website New York Press concluded the number had expanded to about 500.

Agents were sentenced to jail terms after being convicted of stealing $40,000 from a checked bag at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

All agencies both public and private are going to have some personnel issues. Hiring is an imperfect science. However, the TSA has a problem with a much higher percentage of its employees than other government departments or private companies. Assuming DOT is accurately checking the background status of its employees, the agency is targeting the wrong people. The agency needs to study its hiring and recruiting standards to determine why so many future employees might be tempted to steal from customers.

One solution for solving this problem is for TSA to set the security standards but have private companies run the screening operation. If private screening company employees engage in criminal activity, the companies could face penalties or contract cancellation. As a government monopoly the TSA has no incentive to improve its hiring. Creating a better process would be the “right thing to do” but I am not convinced TSA leadership will be moved by a moral argument. 

The U.S. screening model is different from the process in many other countries. In most European countries and Canada private screening is the responsibility of private companies. The Governmental Accountability Office and others have studied private contracting and found the performance of TSA screening contractors to be as good or better than that of TSA’s own screeners. A 2008 catapult study commissioned by the TSA suggested that the agency expand private screening to several different types of airports. Instead of implementing the report's findings, TSA ignored its own study and refused to publish the results.

In the recently passed FAA reauthorization bill Congress requires that TSA now provide details on any opt-out application it denies. In the past, TSA has denied most of the applications because they did not provide a "clear and substantial benefit."

According to my colleague, Bob Poole, in March’s Airport Policy and Security Newsletter #77:

CNN reported on Feb. 2nd that TSA turned down two pending airport requests to take part in the Screening Partnership Program while approving one. Both Mooney Airport in Montana and Orlando Sanford in Florida (in Rep. John Mica’s district) were denied access to the program, because they “failed to demonstrate an operational, security, or cost advantage that provides a clear and substantial benefit over federalized screening operations.” Those criteria are not in the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act legislation; they are the creation of Pistole and his TSA team. Moreover, insisting that the airport demonstrate a cost savings in advance is very difficult, since the airport itself is unable to issue an RFP and select the most responsive and cost-effective TSA-approved company. Instead, the way TSA has always managed the process, the airport applies to TSA for permission and if TSA deigns to grant it, TSA itself selects (by a process known only to itself) the security firm it deems the best fit for that airport. 

The airport that was approved is West Yellowstone in Montana. That airport is only open about half the year, and so under TSA screening, the agency flies in a team of its screeners each spring, puts them up in local lodging, and flies them home again in the autumn. Hence, if the airport hires qualified locals to do the screening, the cost will be about half, once travel and lodging costs are eliminated.

In the past, TSA director John Pistole and the Obama Administration relyed on ideological reasons and not sound policy analysis for their rejection of private screening. Maybe the new aviation bill will change that; but its doubtful.

Safety and cost issues should override politics in something as critical as airport security. But that’s not how the TSA operates.

For more details on private screening see the Annual Privatization Report 2011: Air Transportation.


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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