What's With the TSA's Image Problem?

A few weeks ago, a young woman, Rebecca Solomon, was traveling through Philadelphia International Airport. At security, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener reached into her laptop bag and pulled out a baggie full of white powder. Solomon, who wrote about the incident for the student paper at the University of Michigan, describes what happened next:

"I immediately told him I had no idea where the bag came from and that I hadn’t left my bags unattended—a cardinal sin in airport security. He let me stutter through an explanation for the longest minute of my life. Tears streamed down my face as I pleaded with him to understand that I’d never seen this baggie before."

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Which is pretty much how any of us would react to the utter horror of realizing we'd been ensnared by some sort of unseen drug smuggling operation. But as shocking as that would be, what happened next is even more so:

"But as I emotionally tried to explain that I couldn’t explain, he started to smile, an odd reaction to such a monumental find in my things. Then he waved the baggie at me and told me he was kidding, that I should’ve seen the look on my face."

The saying goes that one bad apple can ruin the bunch, but normally I would hesitate to say that an incident like this is anything more than simply one bad apple, or one poor decision. In the case of the TSA, however, this incident does reinforce the perception of the TSA as ill-prepared and overwhelmed by its task. But is that simply a problem of image, or something worse?

Who's Steering This Thing?

Erroll Southers, President Obama's choice to be Secretary of the TSA, withdrew his nomination last week. He was nominated in September (later in the year than he probably should have been), and by all intents and purposes was a good choice. But his nomination was held up due to political wrangling and legitimate (but arguably minor) questions about his record.

Whatever the reason, the fact that the TSA has been leaderless for over a year is inexcusable. Clearly this is an image problem, especially following the nearly disastrous Christmas Day attack, but it is also an operational issue. Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano (who has received a fair amount of criticism lately herself) has had to devote significant time and attention to the TSA, while at the moment, the TSA is being run by "career staff," according to the Wall Street Journal.

Like a Bull in a China Shop

In the meantime, the TSA has suffered numerous embarrassments, including the accidental posting of a sensitive security manual and "security breach" at Newark Airport earlier this month, in which the TSA came off as rather hapless. And let's not forget the hyperreactive security rules implemented and then quickly relaxed following the Christmas attempt.

Needless to say it's been a rough stretch that has done little except wreck the public perception of the agency. Whether or not this string of incidents would have happened with someone at its helm of is impossible to say. But it's also a question we shouldn't have to ask.

Pass or Fail?

When criticizing the TSA, it's important to remember that airport security is largely a thankless job, with successes passing largely unnoticed and failures receiving blaring front-page headlines. On its homepage, the TSA gives an "at-a-glance" look at the previous week, listing arrests, firearms confiscated, and other statistics as way of showing that, yes, it is keeping us safe. But who, aside from your intrepid blogger, checks tsa.gov with any regularity? That's what I thought.

But as thankless as the TSA's work may be, it's inherently a pass/fail situation—and lately, we've been seeing more fail than pass. In isolation, the incidents of the past two months could be taken as nothing more than poor decisions or bad luck. In combination, they suggest a system marked by vulnerability, inefficiency, and incompetence. My feeling is it's both—individual failures that probably would not have happened in a stronger system. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: The man who pranked Rebecca Solomon? Solomon was told his job was to train other staff to find bombs and contraband.

Readers, what is your perception of the TSA? Do you think it does a good job of keeping us safe? Do you think it's in total disarray? Share your thoughts below. Thanks!

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