Is the TSA worth saving?

TSA: End it -- or mend it? / Photo by jurvetson - Flickr
If you’re upset by the TSA’s clumsy efforts to protect us from airborne terrorists — and let’s face it, who isn’t? — then you may have missed the good news last week.

Big changes could be coming to America’s least favorite federal agency.

Rep. Paul Broun’s (R-Ga.) calls for TSA Administrator John Pistole’s resignation gained some traction in Washington. Broun has called Pistole “totally incompetent” and believes he and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano need to be let go.

Not enough, says Sen. Rand Paul (R.-Ky.) who is about to introduce a bill to pull the plug on the entire agency. Paul, who had a scrape with the agency earlier this year, says the agency can’t be salvaged.

“Every inch of our person has become fair game for government thugs posing as security as we travel around the country,” he says.

At the same time, my government sources tell me the winds of change are blowing at the Department of Homeland Security. They say the TSA is preparing for an unspecified, system-wide reorganization that could represent the biggest restructuring of airport security since 9/11.

Right now, any change would be welcomed by travelers. It’s difficult to exaggerate the TSA’s misdeeds, from misinterpreting its mandate to protect America’s transportation systems, to arbitrarily removing vital, implicit travel freedoms to which every American is entitled, according to its critics.

But what should we do?

Is a system-wide reform — removing Janet Napolitano, John Pistole and restructuring the agency — the right move? Or do we need to eliminate the TSA, once and for all?

Even the most ardent TSA supporters say reform may be necessary. They agree that the agency has become bloated and bureaucratic and overreached its mandate when it began screening motorists and subway commuters, patting down grandmothers and young girls, and subjecting the rest of us to untested X-ray scanners.

The latest call for reform came this morning from Flight Wisdom, a popular airline blog that isn’t exactly known for taking extreme positions, at least when it comes to airport security. It demanded a makeover of the TSA and suggested that at the very least, Blogger Bob should lose his job. Flight Wisdom says the agency’s mouthpiece, who likes to crack an occasional joke online, isn’t that funny. It’s certainly not alone in that assessment.

But others are taking TSA reform more seriously. Alaska State Rep. Sharon Cissna may be running for Congress on a platform of TSA reform, for example.

“I’ve thought about it a huge amount, and I’ve talked with – gotten letters from more than 2,000 people wanting to talk about that very subject,” she told an Alaska radio station. “Most of them haven’t wanted it to be a big public thing, because it hits people really close.”

Simply revamping this beleaguered federal agency may make money sense. American taxpayers have spent more than $8 billion to create an agency to protect its transportation systems, and unraveling it and starting from scratch would represent a huge waste. (What would they do with all those spiffy blue uniforms?)

Meaningful reform would also send a message to anyone with terrorist intentions: that American airport security wasn’t as big a joke as its critics thought it was, that whatever “security theater” was being performed, it still provided a powerful deterrent. And that yes, it’s fixable.

But that may not be enough for some. Indeed, anyone who has been frisked, scanned or (ahem) subpoenaed by the TSA, may favor a more radical approach. Sen. Paul, supported by his father, presidential candidate Ron Paul (R.-Tex.) believe the only way to fix the TSA is to end it, once and for all.

Specifics of the End TSA bill are still sketchy — it is currently being drafted — but it’s a safe bet that the bill, if passed, would do exactly what it says.

The Transportation Security “Officers” would disappear from the airport, probably replaced by private security guards. The body scanners would be unplugged and scrapped. The massive government infrastructure that many say is hopelessly corrupt would vanish, and oversight would go to another agency within Homeland Security, perhaps to Customs and Border Protection.

For many TSA critics, this is the only acceptable solution The TSA represents a shameful chapter in this nation’s history that must be put behind us, they say.

For them, TSA will be always be associated with paranoid secrecy, crime, institutional arrogance, and unnecessarily violent screening methods they’ve described as “gate rape.” They would end the TSA for the same reason a unified Germany pulled the plug on the Stasi, the feared government security service — because it simply can’t be redeemed.

Change is coming. It must come. And it’s not too soon to also ask if the TSA is worth saving.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Nancy Harn

    While I totally agree that something (extreme) needs to be done to the whole TSA system…what about the good employees?  Not so much the “we need to do horrible things to Gma and the little kids because we have power in our mall cop uniform” employees but the ones who show up each day, do their jobs with a smile.  Take it seriously enough but not over the top?  Would they be gone too or just transferred over to the new….whatever?

  • Chasmosaur

    I’ve said it before – if TSA needs to exist, then it needs to be moved under the oversight of something other than DHS.

    I say DOT – Transportation has a vested interest in keeping transportation avenues moving.  DHS would be happy if no one traveled ever again.

    Let TSA be briefed by appropriate intelligence so they can make appropriate security adjustments.  And this way, they fall under a more transparent Secretariat than DHS, so they can’t scream “National Security” if anyone criticizes them.  They would be a specialized security force, not a national security agency.

  • cjr001

    TSA is a cancer. You don’t save cancer.

  • Raven_Altosk

    I want to hear how our presidential candidates plan to deal with the TSA.

    Chris, maybe you could send the question to the campaigns as a media request?

  • Sadie_Cee

    There has to be a successor org. to replace the TSA if it is scrapped.  The good employees should be hand-picked for superior training and used to form the core of the new org.

  • jim6555

    Rep. Paul and his son Senator Paul want to put security screening back into the hands of private security firms. We used to have such a system and it failed miserably on 9-11. The main incentive of private firms is to employ security people at the lowest possible wage. That usually means sacrificing competence for profit. The mistake that was made when the TSA was formed was that they gave hiring preference to those who previously worked in airport security. We now have the same people doing the same, mostly incompetent job and being paid much more money for their (dis)services. Many of today’s supervisors also came to the TSA from private security agencies. If we put airport security back into the hands of private firms, the cycle of incompetence and passenger abuse will continue. Common sense has been lacking in the airport security industry both before and since 9-11.

    I advocate that the airport security function be kept under government control. I would like to see the Department of Homeland Security go away. Each of the components of that agency would go back to being a part of the same agency that they were previously under (Coast Guard and Secret Service back to the Treasury Department etc.). Airport Security would be spun off as an independent agency or perhaps placed under the Department of Commerce. The success of this agency could be judged using these major benchmarks:
    1. No successful attacks on the United States using commercial aircraft or carried out with weapons that reached the US through agency inspection points.
    2. The rate of complaints from the traveling public. A lower the rate would indicate that a better job is being done. A higher rate would mean that it is time to examine why this is occurring and to make changes to reduce complaints.

    To sum it up, the goal of the new agency should keep us safe and, at the same time, keep the vast majority of passengers happy.

  • marlio

    The poll tells you people want this thugish agency abolished.  I dont think it has served any real purpose, and has not caught anyone who was a serious risk.  Anyone who planes to take down a plane, wont be going through a line but will have a key to go through a door or the means to.

  • R


    An agency that: 
    functions in needless secrecy, is deceitful, unlawful, and has little or
    no regard for human dignity must be eliminated.  Traveler’s should be Free to Travel without
    fear and trepidation of what, in the name of security, may happen to their
    person, loved one, fellow human, and personal possessions.  Before the TSA can gain a stronger foothold
    in this nation and impact every moment of your day and night, speak out, and
    ask that the invasion cease.


    Please ask yourself, How Far is to Far for the TSA to go?  Is it when they stop and search your: vehicle,
    while you are driving, when you go to the grocery store, or the movies, or is
    it when they stop your child at school or at the bus/train station?   For me the day came when (after suffering the
    following on separate flying occasions: forced to walk through a radiation
    scanner that took and stored a picture of my unclothed body, had my belongings
    hidden from me, and asked what and why I was wearing feminine protection) I was
    searched and repeatedly touched in an inappropriate manner while a male TSA watched
    with a smile.  The experiences listed
    above were dreadful but my concern is much farther reaching than just myself; I
    am concerned for society as a whole and believe in systems and programs that do
    not victimize the innocent. While there needs to be security, certainly a program
    which is more effective, based on risk, science, technology, and experience can
    be employed.


    we are world leaders, and we can do better. 
    The time for action is now! 

    Rosemary Mulligan                     

  • OldUncleDave

    The TSA is theater to keep the sheeple believing the big lie of 9/11 and accepting the introduction of the police/surveillance state.  Have you ever heard anyone say, “There *must* be a threat, or they wouldn’t be doing this.”   That proves it’s working.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Yes, the TSA must go. But is it going to happen?


    While it’s not impossible to dial back abuse once it’s been institutionalized and accepted as the norm, it’s very hard. Americans have proven that they’re willing to put up with anything — no matter how degrading, no matter how criminal — for a childish fantasy of 100% security. They demonstrate this willingness every day.

    Who would’ve believed just a few years ago that people would line up to bullied, harassed, threatened, irradiated, stripped, and groped — even to the point of sexual assault — just to go about their business? Yet that’s exactly what’s happening.

    So now that the authoritarians have seen that, why should they believe they can’t get away with anything they want?

    Especially when there’s so much money on the line. The so-called security industry is making billions off the scanner boondoggle. A climate of fear is very profitable for these corporations. They aren’t going to take the dismantling of it lying down.

    And almost every single member of Congress is getting millions of dollars in political contributions from these companies. They know which side their bread is buttered on.

    (By they way, that $8 billion figure is the annual budget of the TSA. We’ve spent way, way more than that on the TSA since its inception.)

    Finally, all it would take is one real — or false flag — attack, no matter how minor, and people would fall into line. You think the abuses are bad now? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. We are inches away from a police state, with the total cooperation of the American public.

  • Dave Lieberman

    As my grandmother would have said, “Good will out.” Those good people will find jobs more worthy of them.

    I rarely have issues with the TSA—I don’t fly every week anymore and when I do I seem to get lucky—but it’s also a complete sham. I prefer private screeners, because they don’t get to sexually assault children under the guise of “national security.”

  • Sommer Gentry

    The TSA has lost all credibility.  This agency is so widely seen as both abusive and pathetically incompetent that it can not be rescued.   Paradoxically, both the cowardly anything for security types AND the hands-off-my-junk crowd would be better served by a completely different model, and both groups should welcome the TSA’s demise. 

    The only people who could want the TSA to stick around are its employees and contractors, and perhaps the group of people who just want to *feel* safe without thinking too hard about whether they actually are any safer with TSA on the job.

  • Brian

     The system did not fail on 9/11.  Box cutters were perfectly legal on planes in 2001.  I’d rather have what we had then and ban box cutters.  Let’s face it, 9/11 won’t happen again period. 

    If I was on a plane and terrorists took it over, I wouldn’t wait for the landing and rescue of the 60’s.  Nobody would.  We’d take it to the terrorists, as those on Flight 93 did. 

    What we need is our civil rights back and we’ll take the risks of life.

  • Chasmosaur

    Jim – Okay, so technically, airport security failed.  Box cutters were one of the things the airline industry had identified as items to be confiscated (along with any blade over 4″ long, pepper spray, knitting needles, and generally anything long and pointy).  But it was a rule that appeared to be one of those that was loosely interpreted.  And the statistical amount of failure was probably no less than TSA’s failure to catch blades and other prohibited things.

    The larger failure came from a combination of bad intelligence gathering, and the fact that the government didn’t act fast enough on the info they did have.  And they were working under the assumption that terrorists would work under a traditional hostage scenario, not turning the planes into weapons, so someone could have brought a fake gun through the checkpoint – exhibiting it’s prop nature to a security guard – and have achieved the same effect.  Hell, they could have used a knitting needle.

    As a matter of fact, hijackings on flights issuing from US airports had been pretty much eradicated by pre 9/11 security.  And private security still fell under the purview of the FAA, so they were pretty much federal contractors.  It’s not like there was no government intervention involved.

    I don’t buy the pre 9/11 airport security failure.  That the 9/11 terrorists made it to the airport – that’s the failure.

  • jim6555

    The system failed on 9/11 precisely because BOX CUTTERS WERE LEGAL AT THAT TIME. Anyone in authority with a drop of common sense should have realized that box cutters could be a dangerous weapon. I don’t know whether the rules were set by the FAA, the airlines or or the private security firms. The bottom line is that someone screwed up big time. 

  • Lisa Simeone

    The only things that have made us safer since 9/11 have been that the cockpit doors have been reinforced and that passengers will no longer silently submit (which is more than I can say for TSA apologists).  That’s it.  Everything else is window dressing.

  • cjr001

    People love to bring up box cutters when far worse – real knives with real blades, guns, and so on – get past TSA minions every day.

  • cjr001

    And see what happens when you let a real government agency do a real job?

    U.S: CIA thwarts new al-Qaeda underwear bomb plot

    Guess who will never catch a terrorist or stop a terrorist plot? The Terrorism Support Administration.

  • Chasmosaur

    Actually, they weren’t allowed.  I always thought so, too, but that’s not the case.

  • Brian

    Well, yes and no.  In the article you linked, they were perfectly legal.  The government said blades under 4 inches were permitted.  Airlines had, in their manual, said they should be stopped by screeners.  It would seem to me that a little box cutter, at the time, wouldn’t have raised much attention.  Had the government ordered airlines to ban them, it may be a different story.  Government, would occasionally take guns through to test screeners.  Maybe if box cutters were banned, they would have done that too. 

  • Daizymae

    Unfortunately, this event is already being used to justify the ” necessity” of increased vigilance by TSA.

  • Lisa Simeone

    Exactly. I can hear it now: “See?! Another underwear bomber. They’re everywhere! We really do have to inspect your underwear! Don’t be squeamish. After all, It’s For Your Safety!”

    And how convenient that this story came out right on the heels of a rash of bad publicity for the TSA.

  • cjr001

    I’m betting the CIA could care less about the TSA; they just don’t want them getting in the way.

    Of course, the only thing TSA knows how to do is get in the way, screw things up, and make everybody’s lives miserable.

    If anything, TSA will result in another terrorist attack, not the prevention of one.

  • Oussama

    Inventing a replacement for the TSA is not an easy task. Realistically all we had in the recent years is how bad the TSA is, and a call to go back to private security. Well guess what, almost all TSA officers will be hired by the private security firms. No one has put forward an understanding or a vision to what we want from the TSA. Congress and the government have to set new terms of reference for the Agency.

    I travel a lot internationally and I had more problems with privately owned security companies at Heathrow and Schiphol than I had with the TSA in the USA.
    We need to be careful what we wish for.