In case you missed it, here is a link to Saturday Night Live’s skit on TSA’s enhanced security procedures.
The skit made light of what has spread quickly over the last week — protests from travelers, the White House, the left, and the right over the increased use of Advanced Imaging Technologies (AIT) and “pat-downs” for those who refuse to go through the full-body scanners or trigger the metal detectors. The use of these procedures and the ensuing uproar have left TSA and its new Administrator John Pistole in a difficult position. Yesterday Pistole seemed to back away from assertions he had made earlier in the day on television programs that TSA would not change its policies by issuing a statement that the agency would work to make screenings “as minimally invasive as possible.”
In many ways, TSA could not win in this situation. On one hand, if it did not change “something” to make security stronger this holiday season and another “underwear bomber” appeared, then the agency would have been made into a political piñata. On the other hand, its roll out of procedures that can be deemed invasive and burdensome and that make normal Joes and Jills who are flying feel like the bad guys hasn’t gained the agency any fans.
The truth of the matter is that as we get further away from 9/11 without a successful attack happening, TSA’s job becomes harder. (Indeed, the same can be said of DHS as a whole). Americans feel more secure and less worried that something is going to happen, especially when they are trying to survive economic hardships that face them day to day. As a result, TSA must be more transparent on its security efforts and use a common sense litmus to what it employs. Few, I would venture, would argue that we do not want TSA to protect us and that the agency must be capable of stopping the next terrorist who targets an airplane. What should the agency do?
First, it should continue its efforts to develop more intelligent screening and security measures. After a recent flight, it dawned on me that the agency’s efforts often only see what “good” travelers want them to see. It is incumbent on the traveler, for example, to remove his liquids, his computer, and take off his jackets and shoes before going through security. Sometimes people forget to remove their liquids and nothing happens. Most of us know of some travelers who routinely ignore the liquids out mandate and still have not been stopped. Other times, some of the practices leave us scratching our heads. For example, I recently traveled with a three month old whose booties had to be removed because they counted as shoes. As someone who has worked on homeland security issues, I know why many of these practices exist but I still wonder how we can make things better so that the things we are protecting (the traveling public) are not left feeling as if they are the threat or worse, more threatened. Investment in new technologies that can scan our bags for liquids or allow us to leave our shoes on would go a along way. Of course, the implementation of emerging technologies and measures such as profiling will not likely be without criticism. The deployment of AIT machines have demonstrated that.
Second, TSA should embrace programs such as domestic registered traveler programs that have a security component and allow those travelers who are a minimal security risk to pay a fee, submit to a background check, and go through an enhanced security checkpoint experience.
Third, TSA should heed the recommendations of the Inspector General last week in its report, Transportation Security Administration’s Management of Its Screening Workforce Training Program Can Be Improved, and ensure that screeners receive thorough and consistent training. A number of the “horror stories” reported about TSA’s screening procedures over the past several days do not stem from the new procedures per se but from mistakes made by TSA officers. For example, Administrator Pistole told “Good Morning America” this morning that at least one screening went too far when an officer reached insider’s a traveler’s underwear. Stories of forced removals of prosthetics and breakage of urostomy bags also demonstrate the need for good training.
Fourth, Congress needs to help TSA out by partnering with the agency and not playing out its efforts via the news cycle and blogs. TSA has nearly an impossible task and it could use some constructive help in coming up with long-term solutions and not being forced into reactionary positions.
Last, the American people can help TSA out by being patient yet diligent. TSA is tasked with assuring that we mitigate as many risks as possible to ensure that we avoid another 9/11. Sometimes it might not be able to share threat information with the public because it is protecting its information sharing mechanisms or needs to continue its investigation. While we should hold a common sense test to the agency, we should give it some leeway to do its job.