All Commentary
Thursday, January 2, 2014

Get Rid of the TSA

Make Americans safer by letting airports handle airport security

Fly any over the holidays? Any American who travels deals with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Protecting citizens is government’s most important duty. But it’s not necessary for the State to have a monopoly in this department.

Take air travel: Airlines, airports, and passengers all have strong incentives to look out for their own safety. But while the Second Amendment ensures that Americans can protect themselves, even though there are police, the TSA monopolizes transportation safety.

Unfortunately, it’s better at bureaucracy.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 killings, the Bush administration and Congress felt they had to do something, so in 2001 they created the TSA. The following year the agency was transferred, along with pieces of 21 other agencies, to the new Department of Homeland Security. In 2013 the TSA spent $7.9 billion and employed 62,000 employees, while the DHS spent $61 billion and employed nearly 200,000 people. President George W. Bush promised that the new department would “improve efficiency without growing government,” generate “future savings,” and eliminate “duplicative and redundant activities that drain critical homeland security resources.”

The TSA’s main job is to protect more than 450 commercial airports, though railways, transit systems, highways, and even pipelines also are on its list. Two-thirds of the agency’s budget goes for airport screenings.

Unfortunately, as my Cato Institute colleague Chris Edwards has documented in a new study on the agency, the TSA has lived down to expectations. He notes: “TSA has often made the news for its poor performance and for abusing the civil liberties of airline passengers. It has had a troubled workforce and has made numerous dubious investments.” For all the agency’s spending and effort, “TSA’s screening performance has been no better, and possibly worse, than the performance of the remaining private screeners at U.S. airports.”

Edwards is not alone in his criticism. For instance, Rep. John Mica (R-FL) helped design the TSA and chaired the House oversight committee a decade later. He called the agency a “bloated bureaucracy” with a “track record of security failures” and a “penchant for bungling aviation security and wasting taxpayers’ money.”

The TSA has had abundant problems: wasteful spending of all sorts; “unethical and possibly illegal activities,” according to the agency inspector general; “costly, counterintuitive, and poorly executed” operations, according to the House oversight committee; employee misconduct; ranking 232 out of 240 federal agencies in job satisfaction.

Worst, though, is the TSA’s failure to do the job for which it was created: Secure America’s airports and other transportation hubs. Reported Edwards, “There were 25,000 security breaches at U.S. airports during TSA’s first decade, despite the agency’s huge spending and all the inconveniences imposed on passengers.” In tests the agency failed to catch as many as three-quarters of fake explosives. Expensive, high-tech machines were purchased and then abandoned.

The problem is not just operational inefficiency. The TSA doesn’t think strategically, or at least, do so effectively. Critiques of the agency range from harsh to scathing. The TSA takes “a reactive approach to security” and is “too reactive and always finds itself fighting the last war.” The agency has overspent and created congestion, impeding security. Officials don’t follow “robust risk assessment methodology.” The DHS fails to employ detailed risk analyses to back its decisions. The department “implements most of its programs with little or no evaluation of their performance.”

No planes have been hijacked since 9/11, but that isn’t necessarily due to agency vigilance. Writes Edwards, “The safety of travelers in recent years may have more to do with the dearth of terrorists in the United States and other security layers around aviation, than with the performance of TSA airport screeners.” Alas, unionization under the Obama administration likely will make the agency more political, bureaucratic, and expensive.

The alternative to the TSA monopoly is privatization. Entrust airport security to airports, which can integrate screening with other aspects of facility security and adjust to local circumstances. It’s not a leap into the unknown. Notes Edwards: “More than 80 percent of Europe’s commercial airports use private screening companies, including those in Britain, France, Germany, and Spain.”

Even the 2001 legislation setting up the TSA allowed a small out for American airports. Five were allowed to go private, and another 11 have chosen to do so in the intervening 12 years. However, the Reason Foundation’s Robert Poole complained that the TSA “micromanages” even private operations, “thereby making it very difficult for screening companies to innovate.” Worse, a House oversight committee charged the agency with “a history of intimidating airport operators that express an interest in” effectively firing the TSA.

Obviously, shifting security to private operators would not eliminate problems. But expanding airport flexibility and, more important, creating security competition would encourage increased adaptation and experimentation.

Almost certainly, Americans are safer today than they were before 9/11. But the reasons are many: strengthening cockpit doors and allowing pilots to arm themselves, for instance, and passenger vigilance. In fact, fliers started acting on that tragic September day a dozen years ago.

When passengers on the last flight learned what their hijackers had in store, the former ended the mission. “Just 109 minutes after a new form of terrorism—the most deadly yet invented—came into use, it was rendered, if not obsolete, at least decidedly less effective,” noted Brad Todd. Since then passengers have taken down the shoe and underwear bombers. Fliers are going to do their best to prevent hijackers from gaining control of any airplane.

Obviously, dangers remain. But, paradoxically, the best way to protect people would be to abolish the TSA, limiting Washington to general oversight and tasks such as intelligence activities. Travel would be safer, security would be cheaper, and Americans would be freer.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.