How many more TSA screening failures can we afford?

By | March 10th, 2012

If Jon Corbett’s viral video about how he outsmarted the TSA’s full-body scanners doesn’t end the controversial screening program, then it’s probably the beginning of the end.

And when the agency charged with protecting America’s transportation systems unplugs the last scanner and wheels it out of the airport terminal, TSA will have to answer to the American taxpayers about its latest failure.

Well, maybe.

The TSA is about halfway through deploying 1,800 scanners at a cost of about $170,000 per unit. The total pricetag of the program — $289 million — may not seem like a lot in these days of trillion-dollar trade deficits. But when you factor in the $2.4 billion in extra staffing costs over the seven-year life cycle of the machines the Government Accountability Office says the agency will have to cover, it all adds up.

Corbett, a 27-year-old technology entrepreneur from Miami Beach, Fla., says he wants to end the TSA’s scans and pat-downs in favor of more effective, non-invasive methods. He foiled the machines by simply turning to his side and exploiting a blind spot on the scanners.

Yep, that’s all it took. Terrorists take note.

TSA dismissed the video as “a crude attempt to allegedly show how to circumvent TSA screening procedures.” But it also didn’t say he was wrong, which led many observers to conclude that Corbett was correct.

This is hardly the first screening technology breakdown for the TSA. In 2009, the agency quietly killed its bomb-sniffing “puffer” machines, which had cost $36 million. Dirt and humidity in airports reportedly led to frequent breakdowns of the devices, but even more embarrassing to the TSA is the fact that the puffers didn’t catch a single terrorist. They just puffed away, blowing air at passengers until finally breathing their last gasp.

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Did anyone have to answer for this waste of our money? Not really. This transcript of a 2010 hearing of a House science subcommittee is more or less the extent of what’s publicly known, and while there’s a feisty exchange between Oregon Rep. David Wu and a government researcher, it amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Of course, the TSA’s screening failures haven’t just been on the tech side, but let’s stay there for a second. In 2006, TSA banned all but small amounts of liquids and gels from being brought on board, but promised it would lift the restrictions once it could safely scan your Starbucks latte. And even though it says its deployed hundreds of so-called Bottled Liquid Scanners, the ban remains.

This is a failure of another kind — a failure to perform — and its costs are not as easy to estimate. How many pricey shampoos, lotions and drinks have been unceremoniously tossed into a checkpoint trashcan because the TSA can’t get its act together? Who knows.

And let’s not forget the screening performance failures, which could be the costliest of all. Like missing the deadline for screening cargo on international flights.

Or missing a deadly weapon or two at the airport. Not a day seems to go by without hearing a story about passengers slipping through TSA’s vaunted 20-layer security process with contraband. Here’s a woman who boarded a plane with a firearm in her purse. Here’s a large knife that got through security in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Here’s a sword.

C-4, anyone?

Fortunately, none of these passengers had nefarious intentions. But what if they did?

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We could spend billions more experimenting with the latest unproven technology, whether it’s a new body scanner or explosive detection gadget. We could fret about the knives, stun-guns and grenades that were caught by TSA screeners, as the agency does every week on its blog — or the ones that got through, which it never seems to mention. That, in turn, can be used to justify the TSA’s bloated budget.

But at what point should we say, “Enough is enough?” Magnetometers, dogs and well-trained screeners work just fine, thanks very much.

Insurance companies must make these difficult decisions every day. They have to run a cost-benefit analysis on patients and either say, “Yes, we’ll cover the treatment,” or, “No, we won’t.” It’s particularly agonizing for someone with a chronic or terminal illness, hearing an insurance company representative essentially say your life has monetary value. But if they didn’t tell you, it would probably be up to a government bureaucrat.

Here we are in a similar situation. We have to ask: What’s a passenger’s life worth?

Answer that question, and knowing what to do next will be a little easier.

Do we throw a billion dollars at yet another iffy gadget that some say invades our privacy? Or do we say “no” to what many consider just another expensive prop for America’s security theater?

Do we continue offering this agency a blank check — or do we pull it back, maybe privatize airport security, and agree that TSA will never be anything other than an expensive deterrent to terrorist attacks?

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