On this day in 2001, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) was created in a demonstration that the Keystone Kops are always prepared to exploit a crisis. In the ensuing two decades, the TSA has proven itself skilled at harassing travelers and freaking out over pocketknives and water bottles while steadfastly failing at its assigned task of making air transportation any safer. The TSA, in short, is an awful example of government in action.
“On the morning of September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people were killed in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia,” the TSA summarizes in its official history. “The attacks resulted in the creation of the Transportation Security Administration, designed to prevent similar attacks in the future.”
The TSA launched with the passage of the Aviation and Transportation and Security Act on November 19, 2001. The new law nationalized passenger screening, which previously had been the responsibility of airlines. It’s not clear why anybody saw a need for the TSA, since it’s unlikely that a federal agency would have been any more successful than private contractors at predicting terrorists’ unprecedented use of aircraft as kamikaze weapons. It’s especially unlikely that the federal agency we actually got would have successfully diverted itself from confiscating play-doh to thwarting homicidal fanatics.
“The TSA is failing to defend us against the threat of terrorism,” security expert and frequent TSA critic Bruce Schneier pointed out in 2015. “The only reason they’ve been able to get away with the scam for so long is that there isn’t much of a threat of terrorism to defend against.”
“Terrorists are much rarer than we think, and launching a terrorist plot is much more difficult than we think,” Schneier added. “I understand this conclusion is counterintuitive, and contrary to the fearmongering we hear every day from our political leaders. But it’s what the data shows.”
What set Schneier off in 2015 was a report from ABC News that “internal investigation of the Transportation Security Administration revealed security failures at dozens of the nation’s busiest airports, where undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials.”
The TSA blog carries constant reports of weapons confiscated from people who forgot to remove them from carry-on bags. But the Homeland Security Red Teams in the 2015 test actively concealed forbidden items just as real criminals and terrorist would. The result was that “TSA agents failed 67 out of 70 tests, with Red Team members repeatedly able to get potential weapons through checkpoints.”
Two years later, a Red Team test at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport achieved the same 95 percent failure rate to detect explosives, weapons, and illegal drugs. Repeat national tests in 2017 also went badly, “in the ballpark” of an 80 percent failure rate.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg of abject failure represented by the TSA. The agency repeatedly has been called out for spending vast amounts of money on unproven toys and techniques and then failing to assess their effectiveness—or just leaving them to gather dust.
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