Fly­ing blind

Stunning ev­i­dence of fail­ures by the TSA should sound an alarm.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

THE TRANS­PORTA­TION Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fers a sim­ple bar­gain: It de­mands our shoes, belts, wal­lets, time and, in some cases, dig­nity in re­turn for it mak­ing air travel safer. But there’s rea­son to won­der whether the TSA is keep­ing up its end of the bar­gain.

ABC News dis­closed that un­der­cover gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tors rou­tinely pen­e­trated TSA se­cu­rity with weapons and mock ex­plo­sives in re­cent sting op­er­a­tions. Ac­cord­ing to ABC, un­der­cover in­ves­ti­ga­tors slipped past TSA se­cu­rity check­points an as­tound­ing 67 of 70 times with items that should have set off alarm bells. In one in­stance, TSA of­fi­cers failed to find a fake ex­plo­sive strapped to an in­ves­ti­ga­tor’s back.

This dis­tress­ing re­port re­in­forces the sting­ing con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony of Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity In­spec­tor Gen­eral John Roth last month. Mr. Roth didn’t pro­vide many de­tails of his of­fice’s covert tests, but he said that his in­ves­ti­ga­tors iden­ti­fied in­stances of “hu­man er­ror” and “tech­nol­ogy-based fail­ures.” In fact, Mr. Roth stated, “hu­man er­ror — of­ten a sim­ple fail­ure to fol­low pro­to­col — poses sig­nif­i­cant vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.” The in­spec­tor gen­eral also found that, “de­spite spend­ing bil­lions on avi­a­tion se­cu­rity tech­nol­ogy, our testing of cer­tain sys­tems has re­vealed no re­sult­ing im­prove­ment.”

In the wake of th­ese and other rev­e­la­tions, the TSA must show that it is pro­vid­ing more than just “se­cu­rity theater.” It has to prove to the public that it will keep up its end of the bar­gain — that the time in­vested in air­line se­cu­rity, not to men­tion the TSA’s an­nual $7.2 bil­lion bud­get, has se­ri­ous benefits.

Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Jeh John­son has de­manded a per­sonal brief­ing on the test re­sults, or­dered changes based on the find­ings and dis­missed the act­ing TSA direc­tor. That’s a good start, but only a start.

The TSA’s job is not easy: It has to foil ev­ery would-be plot, whereas ter­ror­ists have to suc­ceed only once to do ma­jor dam­age. At the mo­ment, though, the agency is not even close to inspiring con­fi­dence. And if the trav­el­ing public concludes that it can’t trust the TSA, there’s a risk of a down­ward spi­ral. Peo­ple will be less co­op­er­a­tive in se­cu­rity lines, and un­der­stand­ably so. Morale among the agency’s nearly 50,000 agents will sink, along with the qual­ity of re­cruits. That’s pre­cisely the op­po­site of what needs to hap­pen: smarter, more fo­cused screen­ing of pas­sen­gers with sharp, vig­i­lant of­fi­cers to do the screen­ing. Mr. John­son has two tasks: fix the prob­lem, and con­vince trav­el­ers that he has done so.


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