12:00 AM EST, December 26, 2010
America remains at risk for terrorist attack, and the Transportation Security Administration urgently needs redirection and refocusing of its operations.
My calls for TSA reform are intended to improve the agency's performance, not to do away with it. Contrary to some reports, I do not advocate turning over to the private sector, airports or airlines the agency's vital security-oversight functions.
My concern is that this important government agency, which I helped establish by law after 9-11, has become a bloated, poorly focused and top-heavy bureaucracy. Unfortunately, TSA does not perform as well as it should to ensure our nation's transportation security.
TSA has grown from 16,500 screeners to an army approaching 67,000 personnel. In Washington, D.C., TSA administrative staff this year includes 3,680 individuals making an average salary of $105,000 per year. Another 8,000-plus administrative positions have been created across the country. This was never the intent of Congress when the TSA was established.
Before TSA was created, airlines provided for passenger screening. The failure to stop the 9-11 attacks arose from the federal government's failure to set appropriate, threat-based performance standards and guidelines for passenger screening.
Since that time, nearly all of TSA's security measures have been taken after a terrorist attack was attempted. Examples include banning box cutters after 9-11, removing shoes after the shoe bomber, liquid limitations after the liquid-bomb plot, enhanced pat downs after the underwear bomber and now limiting the shipment of toner cartridges on cargo aircraft.
Without the proper focus and attention to changing threat assessments and the establishment of adequate standards to address those threats, TSA will always be reacting to the last terrorist event and not preparing for the next mode of terrorist attack.
Rather than operate a huge screening force and human-resources operation, TSA must refocus and direct its mission to develop and implement the best security protocols and procedures to ensure transportation security while balancing the needs of travelers and the needs of commerce.
Rather than trying to perform all security functions itself — operator, administrator, auditor and regulator — TSA would better invest its time and efforts by focusing on individuals who pose threats, elevating intelligence and setting standards that address current security risks. A properly constructed security structure puts the regulator in a position to independently oversee and audit security performance, and to ensure that personnel, assets and technologies are properly deployed and perform at the highest levels.
Private-security passenger-screening operations under TSA supervision is not a new concept. In fact, airports have operated with this arrangement since TSA was formed. The pilot program incorporating this private-federal screening model at five airports was established under the adopting legislation for the TSA. Congress provided that after two years, all other airports could elect to use the same screening model, and airports like San Francisco, Kansas City and Rochester are excellent examples of this successful model.
Evaluations and covert testing comparing the performance of the initial five pilot-program airports to the all-federal-model airports have indicated that private screeners performed, statistically, significantly better than or equal to federal screeners. Given the improved performance, inherent efficiencies and potential cost savings, private security screening operations — under federal supervision — can improve passenger screening. This model also allows TSA to focus on security, not managing a huge bureaucracy.
The bloated bureaucratic approach to aviation and transportation security we now witness with TSA is not what Congress intended. The TSA should reform its operating model to provide for improved aviation security.
Adopting the airport-screening model that performs best and allows TSA to focus its energies on security oversight is absolutely essential. Not only will we have better performance in passenger screening; we can eliminate significant costs and redirect TSA to its needed security mission.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Republican from Winter Park, is incoming chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.