Congressional report: TSA suffers from 'bureaucratic morass and mismanagement'

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Monday, November 21, 2011

YARMOUTH, Maine—A new congressional report argues that the Transportation Security Administration has lost its focus on transportation security, "lacks administrative competency" and suffers from "bureaucratic morass and mismanagement."

The 24-page report was a joint effort from two committees in the U.S. House of Representatives—Transportation and Infrastructure, and Oversight and Government Reform. It claims the TSA "has grown into an enormous, inflexible and distracted bureaucracy, more concerned with human resource management and consolidating power, and acting reactively instead of proactively."

One of the report's complaints is that since 2001 the size of the TSA's staff has grown nearly 400 percent, from 16,500 to 65,000 employees, while during the same period total passenger enplanements have grown less than 12 percent. "TSA must get out of the human resources business and direct its energy and resources toward securing the American public," the report says.

It also argues that the TSA has not adapted as the primary terrorist threat has shifted from hijacking to smuggling explosives onto a plane. "Today, TSA's screening policies are based in theatrics," the report says. "They are typical, bureaucratic responses to failed security policies meant to assuage the concerns of the traveling public."

"One of the TSA's largest failures," according to the report, has been its behavior detection program, known as Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT). The program deploys behavior detection officers throughout U.S. airports in order to detect terrorist threats to the aviation system. The TSA has spent $800 million on the program since 2007, though it has failed to detect any terrorist threat in that time, the report says. However, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that since the SPOT program was developed, "at least 17 known terrorists have flown on 24 different occasions, passing through security at eight SPOT airports."

In the report, the House committees offered a number of recommendations to improve the TSA and its performance, including the expansion of the Screening Partnership Program so more airports can contract for private security screening, the elevation of the TSA administrator in stature to counter quick turnover, the reduction of its administrative staff, and the completion of an independent third-party study of TSA's "management, operations and technical capabilities."

The TSA issued a statement in its defense: "At a time when our country’s aviation system is safer, stronger, and more secure than it was 10 years ago, this report is an unfortunate disservice to the dedicated men and women of TSA who are on the front lines every day protecting the traveling public."

The agency also defended its security operations by pointing out that TSA officers have prevented "more than 1,100 guns from being brought onto passenger aircraft this year alone."

It also held up the recently rolled-out trusted traveler program and new privacy software on its full-body scanners as evidence that it's shifting toward a risk-based approach to security. "Each of these initiatives moves us away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach and enhances our ability to provide the most effective security, focusing on those who present the highest risk, in the most efficient way possible."