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June 8, 2016

TSA Should not be Privatized and Here’s Why

by: Mary F. Schiavo

Next time you stand in a long line to go through a TSA security screening, consider for a moment why you have to tolerate the wait, and eventually, the burden of taking off your shoes, removing your laptop from its bag and, if you’re unlucky, enduring a pat-down.

The scrutiny of passengers passing through checkpoints has been heightened in the years since 9/11. And TSA certainly isn’t perfect by any means.

However, there are good reasons to keep TSA government-run – reasons that outweigh current shortcomings. They include the rigorous checks TSA puts its own employees through, unlike some international airports, and that TSA has identified potential threats, resulting in safer travels for Americans.

Extensive TSA screening of airport screeners

Before 9/11, airport security in the United States was run by private companies hired by the airlines. Security contracts were often awarded to the lowest bidder, and security officers were poorly compensated and trained. The rate of employee turnover was high, in some cases 400 percent a year. Some security agents working on Sept. 11, 2001 could not identify mace or box cutters, despite the fact that both of those items were prohibited from carry-on bags. Some agents did not even know what mace was. Background checks on private security employees were limited to a criminal background check. In the wake of 9/11, we found the airlines did not know the real identity of some of the screeners.

That’s a big problem. Who is doing the screening is just as important as how they are doing it.

Born from the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings, TSA, as a federal agency, puts candidates for employment through far more rigorous background checks. In addition to a typical criminal background check, TSA scrutinizes candidates’ families, employment history for the last 10 years, mental health, credit history, educational background and, of course, terror watch lists. A discrepancy in any of these areas is potentially disqualifying. All Transportation Security Officers must be U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals and are granted a National Security Clearance.

By contrast, airports in Paris are managed by a state-run company called Aéroports de Paris (ADP), which hires subcontractors to handle ground operations like baggage handling and aircraft refueling. After the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, a security sweep of 4,000 lockers at the two Paris airports was carried out. The investigation revealed that 70 airport employees had ties to radical Islam and resulted in the withdrawal of their red badges, which give employees access to restricted areas. Red badges are issued by local law enforcement and usually expire after three years.

At the time, English language media reported that the employees with suspected terrorist ties were fired. French language media told a different story. Aéroports de Paris CEO Augustin de Romanet told reporters that if a security company works exclusively in the restricted area and an employee’s badge has been revoked, the company can immediately fire the worker. “However,” he added, “if [the company] has a contract in the public area of the airport, the law requires that the company find a job for the employee in the airport’s public area.”

Employees identified by law enforcement as having suspected ties to radical terrorist groups may still be actively working at the airports in Paris, and the weaknesses in security at airports around the globe could put Americans at risk.

Advances in TSA Security

That isn’t to say that TSA isn’t without its own problems. The agency’s former head Michael Carraway was replaced in June 2015 after the Department of Homeland Security announced that undercover investigators managed to smuggle fake weapons and explosives past TSA agents at 67 of 70 test sites, resulting in a 95 percent failure rate. TSA has also been publicly criticized for years for longer security lines, body scanning, pat-downs and other practices that passengers often view as an inconvenience.

Failures aside, the most important reality is a repeat of 9/11 has not occurred under the agency’s watch. TSA has also learned from multiple schemes that were foiled abroad and Americans are the safer for it.

Shoes and Shoe Removal

Richard Reid, better known as the “Shoe Bomber,” began his terrorist plot to ignite bombs hidden in the soles of his shoes on a Paris to Miami flight Dec. 22, 2001. His plan was foiled by quick-acting passengers and flight attendants who recognized the danger and overpowered him. Following this event, U.S. citizens began removing shoes at security checkpoints for scanning.

Liquids and Volumes

In 2006, law enforcement arrested 21 people suspected in connection with a terrorist plot to blow up seven passenger jets between the United Kingdom and the United States. The terrorist cell had plans to board planes departing London’s Heathrow airport and involved hiding liquid explosives in carry-on luggage. The explosives were to be triggered by a hand-held electronic device. Following this foiled plot, TSA adopted the 3-1-1 rule, limiting liquids at security checkpoints in the United States.

New Bomb-Related Threats

More recently, in 2014 and 2015, TSA increased security efforts at U.S. airports because of concerns over new bomb-making instructions released by al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP). It is believed that this terrorist group was behind the Paris Charlie Hebdo attacks. The recent increase in European terror attacks, coupled with the possibility, though not known, that EgyptAir Flight 804 may have been brought down by an explosive device, remind us that airport security remains as important as it was 15 years ago.

These and many more threats to the U.S. and our allies around the world suggest aviation continues to be the terrorists’ attack of choice. So while it is an inconvenience to remove our shoes at the checkpoint and wait in three hour TSA lines (which also threaten the security of the traveling public as attacks in Brussels occurred outside airport security), the TSA is one of our best weapons against another attack on U.S. aviation.