5:43 PM EST, November 28, 2010
The hubbub over revealing body scans and pat downs has once again elevated the debate over whether more airports should fire the government screeners and hire a private company to do the job instead.
But the privatization question has virtually nothing to do with the specific security procedures that stand between an airliner full of passengers and al-Qaida.
An officer of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration or an employee of a private company are just as likely to ask Grandma and Grandpa to "spread 'em." That's because, if an airport switched from government to private workers, the TSA would hire the private contractor and would continue to enforce uniform, nationwide security measures.
This country has already experimented with systems in which private companies controlled security, with airports and airlines driving the rules. It all went horribly wrong on Sept. 11, 2001.
In the weeks following those hijackings and the terrorist attacks that followed, the federal government scrambled to come up with a way to standardize security at U.S. airports, and so the TSA was born.
Republicans are now red-faced — not because their modesty was compromised by one of those scans, but because they presided over the creation of a federal bureaucracy that quickly mushsroomed in size.
The latest plea to privatize the TSA is a statement against Big Government. And it may have merits in its own right — but it's not a cure-all for current concerns about airport security.
"I never envisioned a bureaucracy like this," U.S. Rep. John Mica, one of the authors of the law that created the TSA, said last week.
Mica sent a letter on Nov. 5 — just days after Republicans swept the mid-term elections — to airport administrators across the country, reminding them of a provision in the post-9-11 law that allows for the private contracting of security.
His concern about the size of the mammoth organization is understandable. The TSA employs more than 60,000 people, including 3,500 in its headquarters. And yet numerous government investigations and actual terrorist plots have shown there are plenty of security loopholes in the agency's system.
More airports are considering a switch to private contractors in response to Mica's letter. But what theywould really gain isn't clear. Questions about cost and efficiency remain. Mica says government studies show that private screeners perform better than or equal to federal workers.
Seventeen airports already use contractors instead of TSA officers. Orlando International Airport is planning to explore that option next month.
Larry Dale, president of Orlando Sanford International Airport, is in the process of converting that facility to private screeners.
Dale, who doesn't have the new body-scan machines at his airport, has wrung at least 15 minutes of fame out of that decision since the uproar over more aggressive pat downs as an alternative to the scanners erupted earlier this month, making the rounds on Fox Business News, CNN and elsewhere.
He has referred to some TSA workers as "testy" and seems to pin his hopes on improving customer service.
But would a body scan or a pat down given with a smile be any less intrusive for the passenger?
It's possible that some of the outrage over pat downs, which include sweeps of passengers' groins, could have been blunted if TSA Administrator John Pistole had tried to convince the public first of what he sees as their security value.
Pistole, a 26-year veteran of the FBI, never needed buy-in from the criminals he went after as a bureau agent. But for the TSA, the suspects are the American public, at least some of whom bristle at being put through the paces like a terrorist.
The public reaction would have been the same even if more of the airport screeners were private contractors. Making government smaller has its benefits, but in this case security should be the priority, and private contractors aren't necessarily the answer.