Shocker: When it comes to security the TSA still sucks eggs

The TSA's failures include tech, procedures and human error which allow weapons, explosives and other contraband to slip pass security checkpoints. "We found layers of security simply missing."

TSA security theater

Billions of dollars later, the TSA is still incompetent and its screening process is full of fail. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wanted answers about TSA security gaps. The DHS Office of Inspector General released a damning report and testified the TSA has not made any real improvements since it failed the last round of covert testing.

After the DHS Red Team conducted 70 covert operations in different airports across the country, it was reported in June that TSA agents missed contraband in 67 of 70 tests. Put another way, TSA failed to detect explosives or banned weapons in 95% of the checkpoint trials. Months later in September, secret tests were run again. DHS Inspector General John Roth called the results a “universal disappointing performance by the TSA screening checkpoint.”

During a House Oversight hearing on TSA security gaps, Roth explained that the covert testing results are classified at the Secret level and he could not talk specifics. Yet the results of the audit were “disappointing and troubling,” he testified (pdf). “We ran multiple tests at eight different airports of different sizes, including large category X airports across the country, and tested airports using private screeners as part of the Screening Partnership Program. The results were consistent across every airport.”

“The failures included failures in the technology, failures in TSA procedures and human error. We found layers of security simply missing. It would be misleading to minimize the rigor of our testing, or to imply that our testing was not an accurate reflection of the effectiveness of the totality of aviation security.”

88 different types of TSA pat downs?

One problem discovered by former Coast Guard Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger, who became the new head of the TSA after the 95% security checkpoint failure results were leaked to the public, is that “there's been too much emphasis on keeping lines short at airport checkpoints and not enough on security.” Neffenger told the House panel, “There were 3,100 separate tasks and 88 different forms of pat down. So that was just - it's impossible. There's no one that can do that.”

Excuses, excuses….

Neffenger plans to get rid of “risky” procedures, such as randomly selecting passengers for expedited screening, and wants screeners to instead focus on would-be threats. There are more bags being carried on than ever before, due to airlines’ business models of charging for checked bags, which the TSA Administrator said makes security checkpoint screening more challenging. He testified, “It’s just a fact that a lot more stuff is arriving. It’s packed full of more things. People have more things. People have electronics in there. All of that poses a challenge for the screeners to deal with.”

The TSA has 47,000 screeners and also employs about 1,550 transportation security inspectors, as well as Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams, Federal Air Marshals, canine teams and behavior detection officers; back in 2013 it was recommended to cut the latter, since a scientific group said there is “no scientific evidence exists to support the detection or inference of future behavior, including intent.”

Despite spending billions (pdf) since 9/11 to enhance aviation security, with the TSA costing taxpayers about $7 billion per year, the newest report issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the “TSA has not consistently evaluated the overall effectiveness of new technologies before adopting them.”

Future of screening

The biggest change coming to the TSA, according to its leader, will be “instituting a culture of competence and professionalism.” TSA Administrator Neffenger insists the agency “is continuing to consider new ways to combat threats, such as using canine units to search for things humans might miss.” Elsewhere, dogs who “flunked” TSA training are in need of “forever families.”

Remember the IG’s warning (in italics above) about deploying new tech without first knowing the overall effectiveness? You might, but it doesn’t seem like Neffenger does as his vision for the future of TSA security screenings include – you guessed it – new tech!

The TSA Administrator envisions a “future where some known travelers will be as vetted and trusted as flight crews.” He added:

Technology on the horizon may support passengers becoming their own “boarding passes” by using biometrics, such as fingerprint scans, to verify identities linked to Secure Flight. The Credential Authentication Technology (CAT) is the first step in this process and will provide TSOs with real-time authentication of a passenger’s identity credentials and travel itinerary.

A second objective is to screen at the “speed of life” with an integrated screening system that combines metal detection, non-metallic anomaly detection, shoe x-ray, and explosive vapor detection. Prototypes of these machines exist, which hold great promise for the traveling public.

Will this actually make a difference? Hopefully it won't include mind-reading terrorist precrime detectors discussed in 2011.

TSA airport security checkpoint tests are always full of fail as seen in public tests results from 2003, from “a 91% failure rate at Newark Liberty International in 2006,” from “a 75% failure rate at Los Angeles International in 2007,” and “more failures in 2008.” There are actually many more than that. As security expert Bruce Schneier explained, “We don't need $7 billion worth of airport security. These results demonstrate that there isn't much risk of airplane terrorism, and we should ratchet security down to pre-9/11 levels.”

Continuing to throw money at the TSA problem of incompetence is crazy; like the old cliché goes… the “definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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