The TSA’s 95% fail­ure rate

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Jeh John­son, head of the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, owes an im­me­di­ate ex­pla­na­tion to Amer­i­cans, many of whom are un­der­stand­ably baf­fled, wor­ried and shocked by a report that re­cently leaked out of the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Ac­cord­ing to the report, un­der­cover fed­eral agents were able to sneak fake bombs past TSA screen­ers with ap­par­ent ease, de­spite the bil­lions of dol­lars that the U.S. govern­ment spends on air­port se­cu­rity and the cum­ber­some, time-con­sum­ing and in­va­sive per­sonal in­spec­tions it puts mil­lions of trav­el­ers through each year.

In 67 out of 70 tests, se­cret DHS “Red Team” agents used in­sider knowl­edge and dis­guises to slip past body scan­ners and pat-downs at air­port se­cu­rity check­points, car­ry­ing weapons, mock bombs or other pro­hib­ited items. The TSA’s stag­ger­ing 95% fail­ure rate was at­trib­uted to both hu­man and tech­no­log­i­cal er­ror. The dis­mal num­bers, first re­ported by ABC News on Monday, were com­pounded by John­son’s dis­mis­sive re­sponse. “The num­bers in these re­ports never look good out of con­text,” John­son said in a state­ment Tues­day. How­ever, he chose not to re­lease the full report or add any con­text, say­ing the in­for­ma­tion was clas­si­fied.

Maybe there’s some “con­text” that would make peo­ple feel bet­ter. Maybe all the tests were con­ducted at one air­port, which trav­el­ers could try to avoid. Or maybe the Red Team agents ex­ploited one kind of faulty equip­ment, which could be re­placed. In­stead of pro­vid­ing such in­for­ma­tion, howev- er, John­son of­fered this mes­sage to trav­el­ers: Don’t worry your lit­tle heads. We’re tak­ing care of it. Con­tinue to re­move your shoes and belts, sub­mit to body scans and keep your com­plaints to your­selves.

Four­teen years af­ter 9/11, it’s be­com­ing clear this is not an iso­lated TSA se­cu­rity lapse — just the lat­est. In May, Home­land Se­cu­rity In­spec­tor Gen­eral John Roth re­vealed that his of­fice had con­ducted a to­tal of eight such covert tests on air­port screen­ing op­er­a­tions since 2004 and turned up a num­ber of se­cu­rity fail­ures that per­sist. Also in re­cent months, hun­dreds of TSA em­ployee se­cu­rity badges have gone miss­ing at air­ports in At­lanta and San Diego. No one knows what has hap­pened to them.

This sug­gests that the TSA’s 95% fail­ure rate might not be a num­ber taken out of con­text. Although this coun­try has man­aged to avoid a ma­jor act of aviation ter­ror­ism since the TSA was cre­ated in 2001, it’s no longer clear if the poli­cies we’ve long ac­cepted as nec­es­sary to keep us safe re­ally are.

As Pres­i­dent Obama’s nom­i­nee for TSA ad­min­is­tra­tor, U.S. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Peter V. Nef­fenger, con­tin­ues Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings, this is an ideal mo­ment for a re­think­ing of the mis­sion and meth­ods of the agency. The agency is cur­rently lead­er­less be­cause John­son re­as­signed the act­ing ad­min­is­tra­tor this week af­ter the se­cu­rity test story broke. If John­son does not come forth to ad­dress the Red Team rev­e­la­tions be­fore Nef­fenger is con­firmed, Congress should call him in for a pub­lic ac­count­ing.

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