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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

TSA Fails 95% of the Time

Homeland Security tests show just how useless TSA really is


ABC News reports that TSA failed 67 out of 70 experiments designed to test how well agents could actually detect security threats:

An internal investigation of the Transportation Security Administration revealed security failures at dozens of the nation’s busiest airports, where undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials, ABC News has learned.

The series of tests were conducted by Homeland Security Red Teams who pose as passengers, setting out to beat the system.

According to officials briefed on the results of a recent Homeland Security Inspector General’s report, TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints.

In one test an undercover agent was stopped after setting off an alarm at a magnetometer, but TSA screeners failed to detect a fake explosive device that was taped to his back during a follow-on pat down.

This will no doubt result in the usual political rabble rousing.

But all of this has happened before. And all of this will happen again.

Like the Amtrak fiasco, and every spectacular government failure, this proof of incompetence will be met with demands for more taxpayer money.

Officials will scramble to cover their backsides, politicians will hold forth on the need for (as always) “more training and new technology,” pundits will cast the first stone at the other party, and heads will symbolically roll as sacrifices on the altar of public outrage. 

In fact, the acting director of TSA has already been reassigned to bureaucratic Siberia.

TSA will blackmail legislators into giving it more money, they’ll institute some new training, and then they’ll wait it out. Everything will go back to the status quo until another test shows spectacular failure rates.

In 2010, TSA’s official government blog indignantly said that reports of a 70% failure rate were outdated and misleading figures from 2005: 

In the last week or so, several media outlets have referenced a “recent” report which cites a 70 percent failure rate for TSA to detect guns and knives passing through airport checkpoints. … All are misleading.

TSA’s “Blogger Bob” claimed that since then, “TSA has implemented new security measures and deployed enhanced technology” including “advanced X-ray systems,” “advanced imaging technology,” and “enhanced pat-downs.”

It turned out that Blogger Bob was lying, since the 70% figure cited in 2010 was from contemporary sources within the government, not from the 2005 study. But now we know what those new systems and protocols and training were worth: less than nothing.

TSA agents are probably very good at catching things they do every day — key, water bottles, shampoo, laptops that haven’t been removed from bags and placed in a separate container… But these systems are designed to catch people who make mistakes, not people trying to avoid being caught.

New technologies and new screening just further splits resources and attention and trains our army of minimum wage bureaucrats to follow a routine and catch the things they actually see every day, not real threats, which are exceedingly, vanishingly rare.

But so what if TSA fails 95% of the time? It obviously hasn’t affected the safety of air travel. TSA has always just been Security Theater, fake security meant to make us feel better about flying after 9/11.

The fact that Homeland Security had to invent fake threats to prove that our fake security system still wasn’t working after 13 years suggests that we couldn’t actually be in that much danger. 95% of 0 threats is still zero.

As David Graham at the Atlantic puts it,

One way to think about this is as a grave threat to national security. The agency that’s in charge of addressing threats to America’s air travel is rudderless, and even the acting administrator has been kicked off the boat. …

Another way to think about it is, so what? … Flying remains exceptionally safe, despite such high TSA failure rates. Like vaudeville theater, the screening process seems to exist largely to create a spectacle.

We could abolish TSA tomorrow and put security back in the hands of airlines and airports, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. So let’s do that.


  • Daniel Bier is the executive editor of The Skeptical Libertarian.