Even the most cynical critics of the Transportation Security Administration, perhaps the most unpopular organization in the U.S. government, must have been surprised by the recent revelations.
According to a leaked internal report, TSA Red Team members, whose job is to test performance, were able to get past security with their hidden weapons on 67 out of 70 occasions, or 95 percent of the time.
The shock of this leak has caused a ruckus inside the Beltway. The TSA's acting director has been "reassigned" — a rare step for an administration that has difficulty firing anyone for anything.
If you're asking why the TSA exists at all right now, you're not alone. With the domestic surveillance component of the Patriot Act having been scaled back, it's worth pondering whether the TSA, another post-9/11 creation, needs to be mended, or perhaps even ended.
Many regular travelers are irritated by the TSA. They may wonder why they have to remove their shoes and belts and liquids and march through scanners even if it's obvious they pose no threat. I've never seen a nun getting a pat-down, but I, like most frequent fliers, have witnessed annoying TSA silliness on multiple occasions. And I have been subjected to interrogation by TSA officials while traveling for the U.S. government, carrying a diplomatic passport, even as foreigners who looked like extras in a B-movie about al-Qaida went on their way, unquestioned.
Hardly any of the TSA's rules have to do with real airline security. As a professional in the counter-terrorism field, I watch TSA inspectors doing their job and mostly shake my head. "This is not an airline security system," opined the former head of security for El Al, an Israeli airline, about the TSA: "This is a system for bothering people." In comparison with the airline security programs of many close U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East, who were grappling with the threat of terrorism long before 9/11, TSA efforts appear comical and ineffective in equal measure.
It would be one thing if the TSA were irritating passengers and, simultaneously, keeping them safe. But the new leak suggests that it's only proficient at the former, and that it's therefore a giant waste of taxpayer dollars.
Much TSA dysfunction can be attributed to its devotion to technology as a panacea, which is a very American trait. Skeptics often note that we need to become more like Israel, meaning we need to embrace profiling — not the latest machines — as the main factor in detecting threats to airliners. Although there is something to this, and the TSA certainly can use more profiling in how it assesses threats, there is no way that little Israel's airline security system can be templated onto our vast, continent-wide airline travel system. The Israeli method does not scale.
Reform is absolutely necessary. Ending the TSA altogether and starting over with a new and improved agency needs to be on the table too. A lot of money and time have been wasted since 9/11 on improving the security of American civil aviation, and much remains to be done, as the terrorists are evolving and learning. I've given dozens of talks on terrorism over the years, and the only line that is guaranteed applause from any audience is complaining about the TSA. Taxpayers deserve better security with less hassle.
But I'd feel remiss if I didn't note that there's something dangerous about the way the TSA's dysfunction came to light: an unauthorized leak.
Most of the things that fans of Edward Snowden believe about the National Security Agency — that it's callous toward citizens, capricious in its authorities and insufficiently respectful of rights — can be more plausibly said to be true about the TSA. Nevertheless, every leak carries risks. Do we really want terrorists, who still exist and remain highly interested in blowing up Western airliners, to know exactly how ineffective the TSA actually is?
As the security expert Bruce Schneier wrote on his blog, "airport security doesn't have to be 100 percent effective in detecting guns and bombs," it just needs to be good enough to deter terrorists who believe there's a decent chance of getting caught. But a "95 percent failure rate is bad, because you can build a plot around sneaking something past the TSA."
Careless publication of harmful leaks is on the rise and will have consequences. Two months ago, the online magazine the Intercept, whose main job appears to be exposing Western secrets, published a checklist of exactly what TSA screeners are looking for to find terrorists trying to board airliners. Calling that story reckless is kind, since what benefit is there to letting the world know this information? Terrorists have learned from the Snowden leaks how Western intelligence is trying to find them — that impact has already been felt by Western counter-terrorist services — and now they know exactly what the TSA is looking for too.