Out of Control Policy Blog

Conflict of Interest Still a Live Issue for TSA

Bob Poole recently wrote this for his newsletter on aviation secturity. . .

Last year when I testified on airport screening before a subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee, one of my key points was that TSA has a built-in conflict of interest. In the legislation that created the agency, Congress made it both the transportation security regulator and the provider of a major airport security service, passenger and bag screening. I've made this point also in policy papers, conference presentations, and in this newsletter. Alas, it seems to have fallen on deaf ears, perhaps in part because while people could appreciate that a conflict exists in theory, it did not look as if there was much of a problem, in practice.

But three recent events illustrate that the conflict is very real. One was the widely reported Red Team testing of screening at Newark, in which the team beat the screeners 20 out of 22 times. A second, reported last week by Annie Jacobsen at National Review Online (Nov. 28th), concerned a four-foot sword (!) that a passenger managed to carry on board an American plane at Dallas-Fort Worth. And the third, also reported by Jacobsen, was an incident at Kona, Hawaii, in which a baggage screener accidentally dropped a binder of information designated SSI (Sensitive Security Information) into a passenger's luggage while it was being screened. The passenger, Navy veteran Joe Langer, only discovered the binder when he unpacked the bag the next day.

What is most interesting about all three incidents is the TSA's response. TSA spokesman Nico Melendez had "no comment" for Jacobsen regarding the sword, and called the SSI binder incident a "fumble." My assessment is that they hoped both would get as little attention as possible, to avoid further embarrassment of the agency. As for Newark, TSA dispatched an investigation team to try to figure out . . . not why the screening performance was so miserable but who leaked the report to the media.

This is "cover your ass" writ large‚Äďand it's exactly the kind of thing that happens when one and the same agency writes the rules and then operates under them. Imagine instead what would have happened if these screening failures had been the responsibility of airport employees or a private screening contractor. TSA would have no institutional self-interest to protect; its focus would clearly be on figuring out what caused these performance failures and disciplining the responsible parties (and I don't mean the whistleblowers!).

Rep. William Pascrell (D., NJ), a member of the Homeland Security Committee, defended the unknown Newark whistleblower. But if he wants to fix the underlying problem, he should look into legislation that would devolve the screening function to the airports, resolving the conflict of interest problem once and for all.

Adrian Moore is Vice President, Policy


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