Soon after its founding, the TSA began to run into trouble. Starting an agency almost from scratch is a daunting enough task, but other factors began to surface. First, passengers were skittish about flying after September 11. Then bureaucratic inefficiency, congressional political pressure, and complaints from the airline industry combined to hinder the new agency's mission. John W. Magaw, former head of the Secret Service, became the first head of the TSA. He hired law enforcement experts at senior levels instead of aviation security experts. Moreover, Magaw hired the senior management, paying them top salaries. Despite spending $6 billion in the agency's first six months, Magaw made few aviation security improvements. Criticism of the TSA became so intense that Magaw resigned in July 2002.
Magaw's replacement was Admiral James Loy, former head of the U.S. Coast Guard. He immediately began loosening security requirements in the interest of customer service. These actions made Loy popular with the airline industry, but it did little to improve aviation security: the DOT was no better at withstanding pressure from the airline industry than the FAA. The TSA began to run out of money from its high salaries and lucrative outsourcing contacts to private companies. The TSA was incorporated into the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on March 25, 2003. Although this transition ensured that funding would be more readily available, problems persisted.
By this time, the TSA had hired more than 70,000 employees at an annual cost of $8 billion. But the problem with this huge workforce was that tests of the screening system proved no more reliable and efficient than before September 11. The new system depended on eight layers of redundancy—in comparison to the previous three layers—to prevent or overcome hijackings. The eight layers were (1) higher screening standards, (2) increased profiling, (3) better screening at checkpoints, (4) reinforced cockpit doors, (5) more air marshals, (6) armed pilots, (7) passenger and crew reaction, and (8) a shoot-down policy.
The problem with these new layers is that a competent and intelligent hijacker can evade these layers by simply waiting until the cockpit door is opened for some reason and then invading the cockpit. Once inside he can hide behind the improved cockpit doors and crash the aircraft before American fighter planes can shoot it down. This weakness in security has yet to be addressed.
Other security measures have also proven to be unsuccessful, including the explosives detection systems (EDA). They are huge luggage-screening machines that use outdated X-ray technology. One major problem is that X-ray machines are incapable of detecting explosives. This technology has been described by Andrew R. Thomas, an expert in airline security, as "density-sensitive but chemically blind." None of these machines are capable of detecting an explosive, so it is left up to the operator to be suspicious about an item because of its shape or density. The TSA has bought thousands of these machines at a cost of $1 million each.
Biometrics has been no more successful a tool. This technique uses technology to measure and analyze human body characteristics such as fingerprints, retinas, voice patterns, facial patterns, and hand measurement to authenticate people entering secure areas of the airport. Biometrics requires a scanning device, software that scans data into a database, and a database to hold the information. The problem is that biometrics does not work well because it is too easy to bypass. Tests of passengers and airport workers at Logan International Airport during a 90-day period showed it was easily fooled.
Another type of security that has serious faults is the Trusted Traveler Program. This system allows frequent flyers to undergo extensive background checks and grant clearance for the passengers to be issued a photo identification card for easy access through security. This idea has become popular in the commercial airline industry. But what if the wrong person obtained access to the Trusted Traveler Card? A terrorist or criminal who could obtain such a card would have open access to an aircraft with few restrictions.
In November 2010, the TSA introduced backscatter X-ray machines that produce nude images of passengers so that TSA agents can check for prohibited or suspicious items. Extensive full-body pat-downs are also being used as an additional security measure for randomly selected individuals and for those who do not wish to be X-rayed. These latest tactics have unleashed a firestorm of controversy. Critics argue that backscatter X-rays may significantly increase cancer risk and that the enhanced pat-downs are a violation of privacy. The TSA and its supporters, however, argue that these measures are necessary for catching ever-more ingenious terrorists.
Today, the TSA, headed by John S. Pistole, has a budget of more than $8.1 billion. The restrictions and stipulations it has placed on air travel, in addition to accusations of inefficiency, corruption, and curtailment of civil liberties, have made it a much-maligned aspect of the post-9/11 security apparatus. Many aviation security experts assert that the TSA has not improved safety, and its long-term impact remains difficult to gauge.
Stephen E. Atkins
Lipton, Eric. "Scissors Ban on Airplanes Will Be Lifted Despite Critics." New York Times, December 3, 2005, A16; Marks, Alexandra. "Well after 9/11, 'No Fly' Lists a Work in Progress." Christian Science Monitor, March 24, 2005, 2; O'Harrow, Robert, Jr., and Scott Higham. "Post-9/11 Rush Mixed Politics with Security." Washington Post, December 25, 2005, A1; O'Harrow, Robert, Jr., and Scott Higham. "TSA Airport Security Contract Examined for Fraud." Washington Post, July 1, 2005, A7; Thomas, Andrew R. Aviation Insecurity: The New Challenges of Air Travel. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003.