Here comes more evidence explaining why the TSA sucks at prevention and blows at cures. Presented to voters as a proactive defense against sophisticated terrorism threats, the TSA has become an agency that belatedly reacts to each observed threats — threats normally defused by passengers who don’t work for the government and haven’t received extensive training on anti-terrorism protocols.
Passengers can’t screen other passengers, but they’ve proven pretty adept at defusing airborne threats. The TSA has the power to do both, but usually does neither, spending its time dumping breast milk into trash cans, fondling toddlers and people with rare diseases, and proudly displaying every inert grenade it seizes as evidence of its travel safety prowess.
When it comes to prevention, the TSA can’t even meet the low bar of recognizing and seizing the items they’re specifically trained to recognize and seize. And the longer the TSA exists, the worse it seems to be getting at providing transportation safety. Maybe it’s because agents are spending more time searching for cash than explosives. Or maybe it’s because the TSA believes its own “behavioral detection” snake oil. Or maybe it’s because the TSA is a large bureaucracy more interested in its continued existence than delivering results.
The Government Accountability Office’s latest report [PDF] says the TSA isn’t doing much to ensure its personnel are hip to the latest threats and knowledgeable about current protocols. Training is mandatory… or so the TSA says. But it has no paper trail that might indicate it’s actually providing necessary training or improving the skills of its screeners.
TSA screens millions of airline passengers and their bags each day at commercial airports. To do so effectively, it requires its screener workforce to complete trainings on screening procedures and technologies. TSA has updated these trainings in recent years to keep up with emerging threats.
However, we found that TSA has not documented its process for monitoring whether its screeners are taking these required trainings. The agency also hasn’t looked at its training data across years to identify trends that may require action.
The TSA Modernization Act of 2018 has not made the TSA any more modern, apparently. It gave the TSA a new set of check boxes to check off. The TSA has put checks in the required boxes, but it seems to feel the job is done when those boxes are checked. The goal of the 2018 act was to push the TSA to ensure it provided the most safety for travelers. Instead, all it did was get a few pencils pushed at the administrative level with no measurable effect on the rank-and-file.
TSA relies on an online database to monitor screener compliance in completing required training at the nation’s commercial airports. However, TSA has not documented its process for monitoring screener training compliance, including for analyzing compliance data and reporting and addressing instances of noncompliance at airports. Moreover, while TSA monitors airport compliance rates in a given year, it does not analyze the data across fiscal years for potential trends in noncompliance by individual airports that may warrant corrective action at the headquarters level.
What the TSA doesn’t know can’t hurt it. It may hurt some travelers but they’re not on the screener matrix so no one cares. If the TSA did even the slightest bit of analysis, it would have realized it still had several severe problems to solve. Instead, an outside agency is pointing out what the TSA should have already known.
GAO found that in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, screeners at 435 commercial airports met TSA’s 90 percent target compliance rate, while in 2018, five airports had compliance rates well below this target, dropping 15 to 26 percentage points from the prior year. TSA officials stated they were unaware of this development.
The thing that still isn’t being done is the same thing the GAO recommended in 2018, when it previously took a look at the TSA’s under-performing personnel and its similarly weak training programs. Two years later, the GAO remains unimpressed. And the TSA remains unchanged. This is unacceptable for an agency our politicians have agreed to pretend provides a valuable service. We’re all being forced to play along. The least the TSA could do is provide better lip service. You can’t head off emerging threats if you’re not even willing to stay current on the existing ones.
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