TSA Watch: Is the TSA’s 10th birthday cause for celebration?

Happy birthday, TSA.

The federal agency charged with protecting the nation’s transportation systems turns 10 Nov. 19. And although its supporters will probably spend the coming days talking about its apparent successes, including the absence of a 9/11 sequel, the question of whether we’re better off with this fledgling $8 billion-a-year federal agency remains very much unanswered.

Maybe it’s a good time to ask it. Not only has the Transportation Security Administration been with us for a decade, but it’s also the one-year anniversary of the unpopular pat-down rule, when officials arbitrarily decided to either send air travelers through its new body scanners or frisk them. A citizen-initiated petition on the White House Web site encouraging the government to eliminate the agency is gaining momentum, having collected more than 30,000 signatures.

So what are the TSA’s major achievements? Greg Soule, an agency spokesman, offers a list that includes the TSA’s quick formation after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the fact that no major terrorist incidents have happened on its watch. “Through significant improvements to our processes and technologies, as well as the ongoing professionalization of our workforce, transportation systems are safer now than they ever have been,” he says.

Several experts who have been supportive of TSA policies in the past agree that the agency has done a respectable job during its first decade.

“The TSA’s greatest accomplishment is treating transportation security like the serious, professional, your-life-depends-on-it law enforcement job that it is,” says Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general with the Transportation Department and now a lawyer in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

She says air travelers have forgotten pre-9/11 airport security, which was run by the airlines and was porous and shoddy. Do we really want to return to that? “The airlines allowed 9/11 to happen,” Schiavo says. “They caught [9/11 hijacker] Mohamed Atta at Boston Logan Airport on May 11, 2001, knew he was photographing, filming and watching the security checkpoints at the airport, and they let him go.”

Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, says the TSA deserves recognition for adapting to meet the terrorist threat since its creation in 2001. When it comes to aviation security, he says, there’s no quick and easy fix, and the agency’s approach of building a layered defense and using intelligence underpinned by technology and a well-trained workforce is keeping air travel safe.

But other TSA watchers aren’t so quick to label the agency a success. Steve Lord, the director of homeland security and justice issues with the Government Accountability Office, thinks the TSA is a “work in progress.”

It has made significant improvements in some areas but is “still trying to meet other key goals, such as meeting the congressional mandate to screen inbound air cargo,” he says. “Also, they need to adopt more risk-based screening measures to deploy resources more effectively. A one-size-fits-all approach is inefficient and tends to frustrate the traveling public.”

Some experts are more critical. Rich Roth, the executive director of CTI Consulting, a Germantown firm that specializes in aviation security, says the TSA has been “a miserable failure” at one of its unstated goals from the beginning: making travelers feel that they’re more secure than they were under the private screeners that the agency replaced.

Clark Ervin, who was the Department of Homeland Security’s first inspector general and now directs the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program, thinks the TSA’s biggest shortcoming is its slowness in adopting cutting-edge technology to make air travel safer. “Generally, such technology is deployed after security threats have materialized and not beforehand,” he says.

But when the discussion moves from the theoretical to the practical — that is, when I talk to air travelers about the TSA and its achievements — the responses are a little less diplomatic.

Although many passengers are grateful to the agency for protecting them and are generally supportive of its efforts, the federal screeners have no shortage of vocal detractors. Sommer Gentry, a math professor from Annapolis and an outspoken agency critic, believes that in the past decade, the TSA has made air travel miserable. She says the agency has a legacy of rude employees, nonsensical rules and violating passengers’ privacy.

“Over 10 years, the TSA’s demands have become more and more offensive to a normal person’s sensibilities,” Gentry says. “After each new outrage, the TSA simply refused to acknowledge legitimate criticism, refused to subject its procedures to any cost-benefit analysis, and somehow travelers seemed to resign themselves to more and more debasement.”

Frequent agency critic Bruce Schneier agrees that passengers have simply rolled over. The TSA, he claims, “has turned airplane passengers into sheep.”

And so, as the TSA marks its anniversary with what I’m told will be a brief reflection on its accomplishments, what’s the answer to the question of whether it’s worth keeping?

I’m terribly biased. I’ve been covering the agency since the beginning, and we haven’t always gotten along. The agency has on various occasions lied to me, threatened me and even served me with an illegal subpoena in an effort to persuade me to reveal the name of a source. (I declined.)

If anyone has a reason for wishing that this agency would go away, it would probably be me. And yet I’m not entirely convinced that eliminating the TSA would be the smartest move.

I’m deeply skeptical of the agency’s suggestion that it has somehow prevented another act of terrorism. And although the TSA has never been anything less than professional when I’ve flown, I agree with the detractors who say that it seems to operate above the law and with virtually no accountability to the taxpayers who fund it.

All that’s certain is that we haven’t had another 9/11 in the past decade. Would that also have been true without the TSA? Possibly.

Perhaps the only thing I can say for sure is this: We should never stop asking ourselves whether we’re better off with the TSA.

After all, we’re not all sheep.

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 chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://oussamastake.blogspot.com/ Oussama

    Airport Security is an imperative need, but not necessarily the way the TSA performs it now. Every airport in every country on this planet implements security using the same ICAO guidelines as the basis of the national aviation security program. Most of them are as effective if not more than the TSA, but most importantly more cordial to the travelling public. 
    Granted the TSA serves the largest single airline market in the world and audits security in every airport that has services originating to the USA, but that is no reason for being the bad cop on the block. The security level or effectiveness will not be jeopardized or reduced if they were less intransigent to people and a little more friendly. Smiling does not cost anything, maybe some training.

  • William Touzani

    I always said that Airport security is about good technology and good service. Thanks TSA for the last decade of trial and error, all paid generously by the tax payer, but it’s time for Private security to take over. TSA can still handle the intelligence end of it. That’s how America works.

  • frostysnowman

    The TSA has not prevented one incident of terroism at the airports.  It’s the agents and police out in regular society who are tracking these guys, following the money trails, monitoring the web sites and using that type of intelligence who are discovering the plots and stopping them before anyone can get to an airport (or blow up a car on a busy street, or whatever).  That’s where I think we need to continue to have the most focus and money spent, not on patting down 4 year olds (my daughter), frail seniors in wheelchairs, people with metal replacement parts, and making the general flying public think we’ve done something wrong just because we want/need to fly somewhere.

  • Daisymae

    TSA can handle the intelligence end of it? With what work force? The high school dropouts they recruited from pizza boxes? The same work force that allowed a person with an expired boarding pass in another person’s name to board a plane not once but twice?

    Are we talking about the same work force that insisted on examining a baby to see “if it was a real baby?” The same work force that thought a 95 year old’s adult diaper might be a bomb?

    No, I believe we should pass the intelligence end of it on to people who are capable of reading something more complex than pizza boxes and who are capable of making high level decisions…like whether a college student should be denied boarding because he is reading a Harry Potter book.

  • Z44212

    I have a lucky rock in my pocket. It wards off tigers. Its track record if flawless.

  • Z44212

    That costs money and we’ve determined that it’s not worth the investment.

  • Z44212

    Private security has proven unable to perform.

  • Fishplate

    If you want to strike terror in Americans, why use an airplane?  There are lots of easier ways.

  • http://www.pipdigital.com Nancy Dickinson

    I don’t even believe technology need play a major role in airport security. While the idiots at TSA will allow a young man with a bomb in his underwear to get on a plane, dogs with military personnel (National Guard) attached to them won’t allow things like that to happen.

    The fraudulent boarding pass thing should have/could have been caught at the gate but there’s a sense of permission at that point because TSA let them through.

    Dogs also know the difference between a  real baby and a doll.

  • http://silverfang77.tumblr.com/ Silver Fang

    I say in order for air travelers to be truly safe, everyone who boards should be armed. That way, if someone acts up, they can be quickly subdued by fellow passengers, like in Flight 93, which was prevented from hitting the White House by passengers standing up and stopping the hijacking.

  • cjr001

    Soule and Schiavo are both embarrassments to America.

  • cjr001

    Forgot to add: Just like TSA is an embarrassment to America.

  • cjr001

    If we’re willing to piss away $8 billion on TSA as it is now, we can certainly do a helluva lot better job with a lot less money.

  • cjr001

    Really? And what do you have to support that?

    TSA has a giant tub of little blue pills that they’re downing by the handful, and they still can’t perform.

  • William Touzani

    Most TSA screeners will have no choice but to work for the private security companies. They ‘ll probably keep the same salaries but with better and more efficient management that has more common sens and wastes less.

  • Warren

    Hello TSA, If you’re reading this,…. Happy Birthday and F**K YOU! Get out of our lives!

    Just remember this, “We the People” and “United We Stand”. The US didn’t win its independance over night, it will take a while to get rid of you thugs. You will get yours sooner or later.

  • William Touzani
  • y_p_w

    I’m guessing the thinking goes is that a fireball “sends a message” and (if successful) that they’re thumbing their noses at Americans that they can pull it off regardless of all the so called security measures.

  • y_p_w

    You really want to run the risk of someone armed and without Air Marshal marksmanship training popping off lead at 30,000 ft?  The solution seems almost worse than the problem.

    What happened with the Flight 93 hijacking was that the hijackers had pretty impotent weapons (box cutters) that only worked with the element of surprise.  It wasn’t that big a deal for a group of passengers (including one very strong former Cal rugby player) to subdue the hijackers.  Of course their problem was that nobody could fly the plane once the pilots were killed and the hijackers subdued.

  • y_p_w

    I remember talking to a consultant in transportation security once.  I asked how the Israelis are so good at airport security.  He said that Americans would never tolerate the kind of profiling that they do at Israeli airports and with Israeli airlines.

  • Douglas

    The guy with the bomb in his underwear did not board the plane at a U.S. airport, and so would not have been processed through security by TSA people. That was a pretty neat trick to try to pull off, and I doubt  whether any pre-flight screening regimen anywhere in the world would have caught it. Not to give any praise to the perpetrator, but it just goes to show that we face an implacable enemy capable of coming up with the most outrageous gimmicks to cause sabotage and mayhem. I think TSA, at the moment, is using the right methods, but I suspect not enough of the right methods, and to be honest, I don’t have any easy answers, and it’s certain that the TSA doesn’t either. Other countries have taken a few ideas from the most security concious country in the world, Israel, and maybe the TSA should too. Maybe we should just outsource our whole training for pre-flight screening systems and procedures to Israel. We could send our people there, or they can send their trainers here. I’m sure they use techniques that our TSA have never thought of. Nobody does it better.

  • William Touzani

    As TSA forces passengers to walk on dirty floors, and confiscate  toiletries and drinks, the terrorists can declare victory. I’d rather die than be humiliated. The amount of explosive the  underwear bomber had could be inserted in his butt. So what’s next? Cavity searches!! The solution, in my opinion lies with good Intel, period.

  • BantheScan

    21 reasons scientists oppose body scanners


  • Brooklyn

    What do you have to support that the TSA can’t perform?
    Don’t make snarky comments if you’re not going to back up your own claims.

  • Texan

    “I’m deeply skeptical of the agency’s suggestion that it has somehow prevented another act of terrorism.”

    You think without the screenings terrorists would NOT have hit us from the air again?  Because of our military and TSA you have the freedom to say stupid things like that.

  • Penny

    I’d love to have parallel airport systems.  You can fly on the system that doesn’t screen anyone.  You’d get yours.

  • Rachel

    Happy birthday TSA! We <3 you!
    (why did my comment get deleted before?)

  • Bill

    Wait, what sort of faggotry is this where moderators can edit our comments at will??
    Double standards, Elliott?

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    How about 70% failure rates in the news, guns and knives and box cutters found on planes with shocking regularity, five guns out of five getting through the naked machines in Dallas, and the TSA’s self-serving refusal to make any of their other screening efficacy test results public?   They aren’t hiding good news; they’re trying to pull the wool over your eyes about their dismal failures.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    Ceasing to sexually abuse innocent people wouldn’t cost anything either.  It’ll cost Pistole his chance to expand his porn collection, but he’s got enough naked kiddies on his computer now to last a lifetime.

  • Warren

    … and you will get yours when you or one of your family members go through security and you’ve been handled in such a way nobody should go through. You’ll get yours when you’ve been publicly humiliated. You’ll get yours when someone runs their hands up your thighs and touches your crotch, you’ll get yours when someone runs their hands under and around your breast. The TSA, their associates and administrators have overstepped their boundaries and there MUST be a change. I’m not saying abolish the security, I’m saying abolish the TSA, their administrators and make a change in policy and procedure. Start treating people with dignity.

  • Bobby S

    Fair enough, but cjr really should back up his/her own claims before arguing such things.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    Rachel, you posted that comment under a different handle. You have to use a unique username.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    @Bill:disqus I edit comments when they violate this site’s standards. 

    For example, I had “star out” some of Warren’s profanity and I deleted a comment because the reader used a handle that was already in use by someone else. She reposted the same comment under a different name.

    If you don’t like these rules, please feel free to visit another site. But you should know that comments are routinely moderated on other blogs, too.

  • Bill

    Alright, but most other sites say why when they edit comments.

  • Daisymae

    I’d love that too, Penny. You’d get yours: perverts ridiculing your naked body, enjoying their mastery of you while rubbing your breasts and genitals, thieves stealing your property, cancer from their untested machines, and a total lack of security provided by the Bozos in Blue. When the pizza box recruits take their bribe and let a terrorist whisk his weapon/bomb onto your plane, you can congratulate yourself that you have indeed gotten yours and retained your inordinate sense of superiority in the process.

    Then we’d get ours: the Bozos in Blue would be gone and real security professionals would take their place focusing on intel and actual police work to prevent terrorists from ever reaching the airport.

    Innocent Americans would not be molested, harassed, humiliated, or illegally detained at our airline. Security personnel would actually be required to follow the law, unlike the Bozos in Blue at your airline.

    Since our airline would not be obsessively focused with viewing/rubbing the genitals of each and every passenger that passes through it’s checkpoints, our security personnel could focus on real threats to security.

    Our security personnel would receive extensive screening and background checks in order to eliminate the criminal elements found amongst the Bozos in Blue at your airline.

    Our security personnel would not be recruited from pizza boxes. Our security personnel would be recruited from amongst well-trained professionals who would actually be equipped to detect and prevent terrorism.

    Our security force would be smaller and much more efficient, without the bloated salaries of your TSA. No inflated government egos to deal with, no kickbacks and bribes to sell dangerous, untested machines that actually hinder security rather than help it.

    So let’s compare the two airlines. Here’s your airline: criminals and illiterates running security, sexual assault and sexual humiliation for the passengers, theft of personal belongings, dangerous untested machines giving people cancer, total failure to provide real security, and a cost of $8 billion per year.

    Here’s our airline: well-trained, well-screened personnel and no criminals lording it over us, increased security, shorter lines, no sexual humiliation, no abuse of elderly/disabled citizens, no molestation of children, and all at a much smaller cost than $8 billion per year.

    I agree with you, Penny. I’d love to see alternate airlines too. We’d get ours…..and you’d get yours.

  • Warren

    Well said, Daisy!!!!! Bravo!!

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Chris, I’d appreciate it if you edited out the “what sort of f******y” comment @bill left above.  I appreciate the moderation of profanity and slurs.  That’s what sets this site apart from the typical anonymous rants that one sees on message boards: civility and the intelligence to express a strong opinion with vocabulary acceptable to all readers.

  • Scapel

    I voted with the majority again. The TSA I think is kind of a necessary evil. They may make it more difficult for a terrorist to cause an explosion on an aircraft, but not impossible. The terrorist could do it if they wanted. The TSA does perform some service to the inhibition of intentional destruction of aircraft. Of course we the tax paying people are paying for it. We should stop foreign aid and use that money to take care of US citizens.

  • William Touzani

    As a TSA officer for over 9 years and finally fired last
    week for being  outspoken about
    additional screening performed on Muslims over the years, I now have no income,
    with 2 young children, and no option but to go back to my native
    Morocco ( See article by Elliott “Confessions of a rogue Transportation
    Security Officer”). TSA already aware of my book “Screening and virgins” where
    I came in contact and courted by  radical
    Muslims and Al Quida sympathizers, because of my US citizenship, now they will love to extract my knowledge
    on Checkpoint Operations and all the SSI material. It goes to show how near
    sighted and stupid TSA is.


  • William Touzani

    Correction. The book called “Screeners and Virgins”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    I attended TSA Administrator Pistole’s talk at George Washington University.  It was utterly nauseating to hear John Pistole, the man responsible for causing thousands of incidents of child abuse, elder abuse, and sexual humiliation at airports, say, “All of you are our partners.”

    No, John, let’s get this straight, I am absolutely not your partner.  You want to put your filthy hands down people’s pants, and I want to stop you.  You want to take naked pictures of women, and I want to stop you. You want to humiliate and degrade innocent people by treating them like criminals, and I am intent on stopping you.  We are not now and never will be on the same side.

    That’s the real puzzle on TSA’s 10th birthday: in the great war of TSA versus the traveling public, why does the TSA keep winning?  Why do low-level clerks get away with demeaning and defiling the decent people of the world?  Why do people shrug their shoulders at me and say, “You’re right, the TSA gauntlet is pointless and it hurts people, but no one can do anything to fix it”?

  • http://www.facebook.com/sommer.gentry Sommer Gentry

    Many, many thoughtful Americans are deeply skeptical of the TSA’s claiming credit for preventing acts of terrorism, primarily because, well, they have never prevented an act of terrorism.  TSA behavior detection officers have in fact watched passively as, on a few dozen identifiable occasions, terrorists passed undeterred through airports.  Guns, knives, and box cutters appear on airplanes with alarming frequency.  Hundreds of thousands of low-paid (read: might be bribable) airport workers, some of them illegal aliens and some felons, waltz onto the tarmac through unguarded entrances.  Overseas cargo: not 100% screened despite years of repeated Congressional demands to do that.

    About your “TSA guards our freedom to say stupid things” claim: the TSA certainly does not recognize people’s freedom to speak their minds.  Just a few weeks ago the TSA called police over to arrest a female veteran of our armed forces at a checkpoint.  Her crime? Having the courage to recite the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution while her body was being violated by a screener.  I’m not sure why our Constitution is so very offensive to the TSA that people must be prevented from reciting it.  Your wording, positioning TSA as somehow protecting our rights, just couldn’t be more inaccurate.

  • cjr001

    I didn’t feel the need to repeat the stuff that’s already been typed dozens of times before.

    TSA is a complete failure. And in light of the Penn State stuff, they do worse: they groom children with pat downs for the likes of people like Sandusky.

  • cjr001


    Nobody has said that there should be no screening.

    But since you want to put words in the mouths of others: why do you enjoy seeing Americans being sexually assaulted?

  • cjr001

    I’ll bring it up again: look at Penn State and the massive cover up that has happened there.

    People are indeed stupid. They want to be ignorant. They want to avoid the truth when bad things happen.

    And because of it, the rest of us suffer.

  • Quentin Eichenauer

    TSA has eroded the protections offered by our constitution by assuming that by merely buying a plane ticket, that is “probable cause” for an otherwise unwarranted search. It’s as close to a police state as we’ve gotten so far, people.

  • Quentin Eichenauer

    The same common sense that causes “private industry” to import toys that violate every sensible regulation on lead content. To assign “robo-signers” to process foreclosures, even if the loan is in good standing? To have faulty parts and then sit on a 7,000 mile remoteness in a foriegn country to tell our courts to piss off? Yeah, good comparison.

  • Quentin Eichenauer

    No, the standard is that moderators don’t talk about moderation. At least for reputable sites.

  • kenish

    We traveled all over Australia and their equivalent of the TSA are efficient, yet professional and polite.  Oz has no 3-1-1 liquid restrictions on their domestic flights.  Yet, Australia is just as much in the crosshairs of terrorism as the USA.

    For all the billions spent, TSA has *never* caught terrorists at airport security screening, yet bad people and stuff slip through as others have commented.  Yet they boast about their catching people with drugs, outstanding warrants, etc.  Sorry, but that is NOT their charter and an egregious example of “mission creep” and infringement on our rights.

    Don’t forget that Janet Napolitano (DHS Secretary) has no security expertise.  Obama gave her the “trophy post” for her endorsement and her big campaign contribution.  Her Bush-era predecessor, Michael Chertoff, circumvented competitive bidding practices and handed OSI Rapiscan the contract for whole-body scanners. He is now their private sector consultant with a handsome paycheck from them.

  • lotusland

    I was taken aback by the overwhelming negatives awarded TSA in your survey. Perhaps my perspective is skewed, but as a frequent business traveler more than a decade ago, I could only grind my molars over the lack of professionalism among what only could be described as low-bid airline rent-rude-goons. The local airport manager, whom I knew, described himself as entirely powerless and at his wits end over the flood of passenger complaints. As for TSA, I personally have never encountered other than professionalism. With the number of U.S. airline passengers exceeding 800 million, the handful of horror stories should be considered as outliers. I’m not seeking smiles among airport security personnel. I do insist on TSA anticipating and eliminating any ruse along would-be bra bombers.
    Like mosquitoes, the security firms displaced by TSA are swarming (and bribing) our federal elected servants for another chance at low-bid safety. If one of our presidential hopeful adds TSA to his/her list, I will feel less safe.