The TSA Doesn't Work—and Never Has

After undercover agents snuck weapons past screeners in 95 percent of cases, the acting administrator has been fired.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

It’s customary among critics to deride the Transportation Security Administration as “security theater.” One has to wonder what kind of theater this is, though. A period drama, satirizing the 2000s? Vaudeville farce?

Witness the latest embarrassing lapses by airport screeners, as reported by ABC:

An internal investigation of the Transportation Security Administration revealed security failures at dozens of the nation’s busiest airports, where undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials, ABC News has learned. The series of tests were conducted by Homeland Security Red Teams who pose as passengers, setting out to beat the system.

In case the data don’t seem convincing, have an anecdote: In one case, a Red Team member strapped a fake bomb to his back. The screening machinery detected something amiss—so far, so good. But a patdown by an agent failed to detect the device, and the man passed through.

TSA’s failure to detect undercover agents might seem like familiar news, since it’s a part of a pattern. Reports about the TSA failing to find planted weapons and the like pop up every few years. In 2013, the GAO found that a nearly $900 million screening program didn’t work. In 2013, then-Administrator John Pistole was run through a congressional gauntlet over failures, but he insisted that the failures to catch members of Red Teams shouldn’t be viewed so negatively. After all, he reasoned, these were people who knew all of TSA’s internal protocols and were trying to test them—“super-terrorists,” he called them.

The problem with that rationale—leaving aside the presumption that real terrorists would also seek to learn and circumvent TSA protocols—is that non-super-terrorists seem to frequently bypass checks, too. In 2008, my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg wrote the kind of piece that would be hilarious if wasn’t terrifying, about traveling through checkpoints with fake boarding passes, no I.D., and ostentatious paraphernalia of terrorist organizations:

Because I have a fair amount of experience reporting on terrorists, and because terrorist groups produce large quantities of branded knickknacks, I’ve amassed an inspiring collection of al-Qaeda T-shirts, Islamic Jihad flags, Hezbollah videotapes, and inflatable Yasir Arafat dolls (really). All these things I’ve carried with me through airports across the country. I’ve also carried, at various times: pocketknives, matches from hotels in Beirut and Peshawar, dust masks, lengths of rope, cigarette lighters, nail clippers, eight-ounce tubes of toothpaste (in my front pocket), bottles of Fiji Water (which is foreign), and, of course, box cutters. I was selected for secondary screening four times—out of dozens of passages through security checkpoints—during this extended experiment. At one screening, I was relieved of a pair of nail clippers; during another, a can of shaving cream.

In this case, however, the secretary of Homeland Security has moved quickly to show that there is accountability. Secretary Jeh Johnson reassigned the administrator of TSA, Melvin Carraway, with a curt valediction: “I thank Melvin Carraway for his eleven years of service to TSA and his 36 years of public service to this Nation.” Except that Carraway wasn’t really the administrator—he was the acting administrator. The last permanent administrator, John Pistole, left on New Year’s Eve 2014, leaving the agency without a leader. It took the administration until the end of April to nominate a new administrator, in part because there was great concern to bring in someone who could get confirmed by the Senate.

President Obama finally nominated Peter V. Neffenger, the current vice commandant of the Coast Guard for the gig. Even then, Politico reports, he could face a difficult challenge, in part because while everyone seems to hate the screening process, members of Congress are especially frequent fliers and therefore are more acquainted with the miseries of air travel than most. (Jeh Johnson used his statement relieving Carraway of his duties to call on the Senate to confirm Neffenger.)

One way to think about this is as a grave threat to national security. The agency that’s in charge of addressing threats to America’s air travel is rudderless, and even the acting administrator has been kicked off the boat. Even worse, it comes as several provisions of the Patriot Act expire, which some argue endangers the nation’s security. (Others, needless to say, fiercely dispute that characterization.) On Tuesday morning alone, there were bomb threats against five U.S. flights, though officials didn’t believe they were credible.

Another way to think about it is, so what? TSA doesn’t ever seem to have been able to stop Red Team agents (or Atlantic correspondents) from bringing contraband through checkpoints. Meanwhile, American air travel has been largely free from attacks. The most notable recent case of an attempted attack on an airliner was Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s Christmas Day flight in 2009, and in that case the attacker boarded in Nigeria. Flying remains exceptionally safe, despite such high TSA failure rates. Like vaudeville theater, the screening process seems to exist largely to create a spectacle. Just don’t expect a soft shoe—you’ll have to remove those and put them on the belt, thank you.