TSA failures expose security theater

security theaterAt the beginning of the month, Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson announced that acting-TSA chief Melvin Carraway would be reassigned after a report was released showing that the TSA failed 95% of their own tests to detect mock explosives and weapons. These results are dismal but not unexpected, at least to those who have paid attention to previous reports of TSA failures. CNN reports, “ The TSA has been failing these sorts of tests since its inception: failures in 2003, a 91% failure rate at Newark Liberty International in 2006, a 75% failure rate at Los Angeles International in 2007, more failures in 2008. And those are just the public test results.” However, the TSA had attempted to excuse those previous results as not being accurate, because they were tests in a single airport, or “not realistic simulations of terrorist behavior.”

There’s no excuses this time, right? The test was conducted in dozens of airports, and Reuters reports agents “did not detect banned weapons in 67 of 70 tests.” Reason reports, “TSA officials have complained in the past that undercover security testers—known as the Red Team—have an unfair advantage. The testers know the agency’s policies and procedures, and can design tests specifically to evade them… This wasn’t some brilliantly designed plot based on secret inside knowledge of how the TSA’s system works: The Red Team tester taped a fake bomb to his body and then walked through the bomb scanner, which went off.” The fake bomb which set off an alarm was not detected by the agent conducting a patdown.

After the results went public, Johnson said, “The numbers in these reports never look good out of context but they are a critical element in the continual evolution of our aviation security. We take these findings very seriously in our continued effort to test, measure and enhance our capabilities and techniques as threats evolve.”

I’m trying to imagine a context, outside of begging for more money to improve, in which a failure rate of 95% looks good. I’m also trying to comprehend why Melvin Carraway and the TSA agents who actually failed the tests are still employed. Lastly, I’m trying to figure out why some people don’t see that the TSA is not actual security, but just security theater. That term actually comes from security expert Bruce Schneier, who coined the phrase “for security measures that look good, but don’t actually do anything.”

Absent the TSA and other federal regulations each airline would be responsible for its own safety and security. Some airlines might choose to have more lax security, while others may choose more stringent security. In the end, it would be up to the passengers to decide the level of security they’re comfortable with, and the market would determine which airlines succeed and which ones fail.

2 Comments
  1. This is characteristic of one of the many problems with the US government. There is no negative consequence for failure. If anything the agency claims it is because of a lack or resources, and gets rewarded.

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