Mica - We must get TSA back on track

November 24, 2010 12:05 AM

Rep. John L. Mica, R-Winter Park, is the ranking member of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He represents much of Volusia and Flagler counties.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has become a bloated bureaucracy and the agency serves in conflicting roles as administrator, auditor, regulator and operator of security screening.

Over the last decade, TSA has grown into an enormous and unwieldy bureaucracy. TSA began in 2001 as a modest force of 16,500 airport screeners, but the agency will soon mushroom to more than 67,000 employees. TSA has more than 3,500 administrative staff in its Washington, D.C., headquarters averaging $105,000 per year in salary, and another 7,000-plus administrative personnel stationed throughout the country. It has grown into a top-heavy, inflexible bureaucracy -- not the nimble, manageable security agency needed to adapt to changing security threats.

At the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks, I was serving as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation and began drafting the law that created TSA. I can tell you that today's TSA is not what we had envisioned when we wrote the law.

Most agreed that the federal government should oversee and regulate airport screening. However, when the agency was established, we developed two models for conducting screening. In addition to an all-federal screening model, we directed TSA to establish a program in which airports would use certified private screening companies, under TSA contract, standards and supervision. The five airports in the original pilot program -- San Francisco, Kansas City, Greater Rochester, Jackson Hole, and Tupelo, have, as demonstrated in independent evaluations, performed statistically significantly better than or equal to their all-federal screening counterparts. All five original pilot program airports were so pleased with the results that they elected to stay in the federal-private screening program. To date, 16 airports are participating in the federal-private screening program.

Airports also have the option of performing their own screening after being qualified by TSA. One airport, Jackson Hole, currently operates under that model.

This federal-private model option can improve screening, customer service, employee morale, and provide greater flexibility and superior operational efficiencies. Most importantly, this would leave TSA to focus on setting security standards, conducting oversight, and auditing the system.

Instead we have an increasingly unwieldy, oversized, and inflexible TSA bureaucracy.

TSA's growing size has not improved its performance. Earlier this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that TSA completely bungled the development and deployment of a behavior detection program for the nation's airports.

Another GAO report outlined TSA's poor performance in all modes of transportation. Penetration testing continues to show that even with new screening technology and the behavior detection program, the aviation screening system is not working as well as it should. The roll-out of advanced imaging technology and pat-down procedures has been poorly executed, and equipment purchased fails to protect the privacy of those being screened.

Although we are more secure than before 9/11, we must constantly improve our security system. Given our limited federal resources, TSA must better focus on the latest intelligence, working with other countries to improve security at overseas departure points, and identifying individuals who truly pose threats to transportation security. Above all, TSA must use common sense and adjust its tactics accordingly. We cannot treat every passenger, including pilots, the medically disabled, and children, like suspects.

TSA could be much more effective by providing clear operational criteria and better focus on a much smaller number of individuals who require additional security screening.

With five TSA administrators in eight years, and the position being vacant for a year and a half before Administrator John Pistole's appointment, it is no wonder this agency has been headed in the wrong direction. Because terrorists are nimble -- now looking at surgical body implants and exploding cargo aircraft over American cities -- we must properly focus our resources, personnel and security strategies to meet evolving threats.

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