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Among Continued TSA Bungling, One Positive Sign

Baruch Feigenbaum
June 13, 2012, 3:15pm

While the TSA continues to make major mistakes, the agency made one smart decision last week. The disciplining of 43 TSA employees at Southwest Florida International Airport proves that there are continuing issues at TSA. But the agency’s approval of private screeners at Orlando-Sanford Airport, indicates the agency may finally be considering the traveling public rather than itself.

Regarding the security lapse in Fort Myers according to the News-Press:

Five Transportation Security Administration workers at Southwest Florida International Airport have been fired and another 38 suspended after an internal investigation found they failed to perform random screenings last year.

The 43, a combination of front-line screeners and supervisors, represent about 15 percent of the roughly 280 TSA employees at the airport. The number of workers involved makes it one of the largest disciplinary actions TSA has taken in its 10-year history, TSA spokesman David Castelveter confirmed.

The workers were notified of their punishment Friday and are being given an opportunity to appeal, he said. The agency has brought in screeners from other airports to fill in.

During a two-month period last year, as many as 400 passengers who underwent routine screening never got additional random checks, Castelveter said. About 3.8 million passengers departed from the airport last year.

Castelveter said TSA officials were alerted by a fellow employee at the airport who reported at least one violation during the two-month period. The agency then conducted its own probe and found other violations. 

First, why was no one checking on the screeners? One problem with the federal government handling both the screening duties and overseeing the screeners process is that the same agency that is conducting the screening is managing the screening process. This is a conflict of interest. The DOT Office of Inspector General monitors the TSA but its job is to stop systematic problems--not this type of random problem. If the screening force is privatized, then the government will monitor the private contractors. There will be no conflict of interest for the government to release reports critical about the private contractors. But when the government monitors itself, taxpayers have to rely on the government to release audits critical of itself. 

In the Fort Myers situation, the TSA did not report the problem until more than six months after its occurrence. During the investigation the government kept the problem secret; nobody outside TSA was aware there was a problem. Did the screeners change their behavior in the last six months? Was this a problem up until the termination of 5 of screening supervisors? We do not know. 

Further, why were the screeners allowed to keep screening passengers? Why were they not placed on administrative review? And why did the review take so long? The continual screening of passengers by TSA employees when TSA leadership knew these employees were not doing their job is particularly troubling. Breaking of the incident on a Friday evening seems designed to quell media coverage. While it may not have been TSA’s intent, it appears the agency is trying to sweep this incident under the rug. 

Perhaps the most bizarre statement by came from TSA spokesman David Castelever. According to Castelever:

“It’s the random secondary (checks) that did not happen,” he said. “At no time was a traveler’s safety at risk and there was no impact on flight operations.” 

But if travelers are not at risk, why is TSA performing the random secondary checks? The agency has shifted its security approach very slightly to a more risk-based approach. While this is far short of the comprehensive shift needed, it is a step in the right direction. Yet the same TSA that for the last several years has been adamant about random searches is now claiming those random searches are not necessary. Has the agency changed its mind? I doubt it. The latest response seems geared more towards framing the media coverage and focused less on actual policy. 

However, TSA has taken one positive step. Earlier this week the TSA finally approved Orlando-Sanford’s application to use private screeners. (The airport is in the district of Transportation and Infrastructure Chair John Mica’s district.) Earlier this year the TSA approved private screening for a seasonal airport at West Yellowstone, MT. The agency had previously denied both the West Yellowstone and the Orlando-Sanford applications.

Trying to understand TSA is frustrating. TSA did approve the Orlando-Sanford screening privatization and may consider adopting a more risk-based approach to airport security. But then the TSA sweeps a major problem under the rug while a high-placed agency spokesman denies the problem exists. What is going on? TSA’s first mission is to protect TSA; logic, rationale, and cost-savings are unimportant. This is typical behavior for a large U.S. government agency. Protect the agency but not the American people.

The question is whether TSA is serious about privatization and a risk-based system or is intent on trying to get Rep. John Mica off its back. I believe it is the second option; let us hope I am wrong. 


Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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