1. "We still have some room to grow."
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Transportation Security Administration has installed 48,000 federal security officers, primarily in airports. Their mission: To vet the nation's approximately 625 million air passengers and more than 9 billion trips on U.S. mass transit per year. Thwarted attacks since then have ushered in further measures that air passengers have tolerated for the sake of security, until last year's major rollout of full-body scans and enhanced pat downs. Critics say they're too invasive and wonder if they'll be used elsewhere. Indeed, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said it might soon be time to expand the focus on aviation security to other forms of mass transit. In March the Electronic Privacy Information Center released documents describing a Department of Homeland Security pilot program for mobile full-body screening at rail stations and other venues, though the TSA denies such plans.
2. "We spend before we finish the research."
The TSA put in an $8.1 billion budget request for fiscal 2012, up 29 percent from five years earlier. But audits from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, indicate the agency has spent money on some programs without fully testing their effectiveness or cost-benefits, says Steve Lord, a director on the GAO's homeland security and justice team. For example, a 2010 GAO report said the TSA hadn't done a full cost-benefit analysis of its plan for more Advanced Imaging Technology units and estimated that to have 1,800 of them in use by 2014 would add up to $2.4 billion in staffing costs alone. Another 2010 report blasted the TSA's behavior-detection program, rolled out "without first validating the scientific basis." John Huey, a security sales and government relations consultant, says the TSA rushes to spend on strategies it hasn't tested in order to appear to be addressing the latest security threat. "It's all smoke and mirrors," he says. But Douglas Laird, former head of security for Northwest Airlines, says more money is needed. "Nobody wants to spend the right amount of money to do [security] properly," he says. The TSA says that AIT is "a very effective security tool" and just "one part of our multilayered approach to minimize risk."
3. "We hate pat downs as much as you do..."
When the TSA announced plans for the regular use of full-body scans, public outcry was fierce especially when people learned refusing a scan meant a thorough pat down instead. Says Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, "People shouldn't have to choose between being looked at naked or being groped." TSA screeners aren't so happy either. When travel blog Flying With Fish asked them to comment on the pat downs anonymously, they reported being disgusted and demoralized. "The constant run of hateful comments while I perform my job will break me down faster and harder than anything I encountered while in combat in the Army," wrote one screener. While the TSA had no comment on these statements, a spokesperson says "many programs have been implemented to benefit TSA's workforce."
4. "...and there's still some debate over whether our scanners are safe."
The TSA says its imaging technology is safe, based on testing done by the Food and Drug Administration and scientists at Johns Hopkins, among others, but a group of professors from the University of California at San Francisco disagree. The group wrote a letter in 2010 to President Obama's science adviser, expressing its concern that the radiation exposure was miscalculated and could actually be much higher. Professor David Brenner, head of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, says that while he agrees with the FDA that the risk to individuals, even frequent fliers, is minuscule, it's like a lottery: With so many people being exposed to even such a small risk, "it is likely that some folks will end up with cancer from the scans," he says. The TSA didn't respond directly to such criticism but points out that other academics do not share the UCSF group's concerns.
5. "We don't always screen cargo."
As of 2010 the TSA screened an estimated 55 to 65 percent of cargo on passenger flights entering the U.S. But following a foiled al Qaeda plot to ship bombs disguised as print cartridges, Rep. Ed Markey (D Mass.) proposed stronger measures on all-cargo flights in addition to passenger flights. However, security experts say viable technology for screening whole pallets of every type of cargo doesn't exist. Currently, most packages must be scanned individually. Says Laird, the TSA is doing the best it can to meet a standard "that just doesn't follow the laws of physics." As for flights coming in from abroad, TSA Assistant Administrator John Sammon testified before Congress that the TSA is working with other countries to see their security procedures match ours. "We are renewing our efforts to ensure broader international awareness of TSA's congressional screening mandate," he said.
6. "Our employees have some complaints."
In 2005 the TSA changed the job title of security screeners to "transportation security officer," and in 2007 it spent millions on new uniforms and badges. Still, a 2008 report from Richard Skinner, who was then inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, found that low morale among staff was causing a 17 percent voluntary attrition rate. Employees also reported "lack of trust, fear of retaliation, authoritarian management style, mistreatment and disrespect." To address such issues, the TSA created IdeaFactory, a site where employees can offer suggestions for improvement. The initiative has been praised by the White House, says the TSA, and resulted in more than 45 new programs impacting work life.
7. "Airport staff get a pass on security."
All passengers entering secure areas undergo a security check, but that's not so for airport workers. Instead, the TSA says, lengthy background checks are performed on new hires, who are then subject to random security checks. The policy didn't fly with Chris Liu, a pilot with American Airlines, who shot video of San Francisco International Airport workers entering secured areas with nothing more than the swipe of an ID card. But Art Kosatka, a former director at Airports Council International, says screening employees many times a day is "just crazy": "At rush hour, you cannot have that kind of a slowdown." Laird says many major airports abroad screen staff that way, and "it works fine everywhere except here" in the U.S. The TSA says it inspects airport staff "anywhere, anytime," ensuring they display proper ID and follow procedure for entering secure areas.
8. "Private security could be the future."
The Aviation and Transportation Security Act mandated that the TSA run a pilot project testing how private security firms did conducting security screening. The Screening Partnership Program, which the pilot evolved into, is intended for a provision of the law letting airports opt out of using federal screeners; currently, 16 domestic airports employ private screeners through the program. Although some airports and lawmakers have argued for further expansion of private screening, the TSA announced it would no longer accept applications for now. Few studies have been conducted to determine who does a better job, though a 2004 report from tech-consultant BearingPoint found private screeners performed as well as or better than TSOs. Christopher Bidwell, VP of security and facilitation at Airports Council International, says the TSA should preserve the program, adding "it's certainly something that airports are interested in." The TSA says the decision not to expand privatized screening is in line with its role as a "federal counterterrorism network that continues to evolve to keep the traveling public safe."
9. "We embrace science fiction."
The TSA has been known to explore some quirky technology in the name of security. Take puffers, the phone booth size contraptions that blast passengers with air, dislodging particles and analyzing the contents for explosives. According to a 2009 GAO report, the TSA was aware that tests on early models "suggested they did not demonstrate reliable performance in an airport environment." Nonetheless, 101 of the machines were installed in airports. The puffers, which cost $30 million, have since been disposed of or sent to other government agencies. While there are plenty of interesting tech innovations currently being tested that in theory seem like a "cool idea," says Kosatka, they're often "not something you want to depend on in an airport." The TSA says it "continues to look at emerging technologies to enhance the security-checkpoint environment."
10. "Checked bags are easy marks."
Travelers trust that what they stow in checked luggage will be there when they land. But the TSA recommends those carrying valuables request a private security screening and states on its site, "theft in our nation's airports is a big problem." Indeed, two TSA agents were arrested at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in February for allegedly stealing $40,000 from a passenger's checked bag. In 2009 a supervisor stole $20,000 in jewelry from baggage in Seattle, and in 2010 a screener was sentenced to probation for stealing five laptops and a PlayStation at Philadelphia International. As of 2008 the TSA had terminated 200 employees accused of stealing, which it points out is less than 0.5 percent of its workforce. Says a spokesperson, "TSA has a zero-tolerance policy for theft at the workplace."