Rethinking TSA

Transportation security critics turn up the volume on calls for an overhaul.

It's long past sunset for the Transportation Security Administration, but the agency formed to safeguard aviation and other modes of travel in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks trundles on. It has outlived by almost 18 months a clause in its enabling legislation, the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which permits its termination after November 2004. That's in spite of belittling by the public, the media, government watchdogs and members of Congress who say TSA has become sluggish and obstinate.

They make their case with examples of overdue initiatives such as biometric identification cards for transportation workers, skimpy funding for important screening technologies and the disparity among security approaches for air, surface and maritime transportation modes. The revelation that Government Accountability Office investigators managed to sneak bomb components through security checkpoints at 21 airports late last year helped to reinforce the image of an ineffective bureaucracy.

"TSA's still unbalanced. It continues to focus almost exclusively on one mode of transportation," Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., complained at a February hearing on TSA's $6.3 billion budget request for 2007. "TSA's still inefficient. It continues to be wholly dependent on airport screeners and dated technologies," said Rogers, chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee. He scolded the agency for disregarding congressional direction and failing to meet statutory deadlines, and went on lecturing Edmund "Kip" Hawley, TSA's fourth administrator in four years. "A flat budget may not be sufficient," Rogers said.

Two legislative proposals aim to chip away at the monolith. Dismantling TSA isn't in the plans, but the bills promise radical changes in the way the agency operates. Both seek ways to streamline costly and labor-intensive aviation passenger and baggage screening, which have kept TSA from spending more than about 0.5 percent of its annual allotment on transit, rail, port and highway security.

The Transportation Security Improvement Act, introduced a year ago by a bipartisan group of senators, would require the Homeland Security and Transportation departments to give more management attention and funding to surface and maritime modes. The act was awaiting consideration by the full Senate in April.

In March, the House Homeland Security Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity Subcommittee finished work on H.R. 4439, the Transportation Security Administration Reorganization Act. It would create a new airport screening organization to manage day-to-day passenger and baggage security operations at airports with federal screeners. A new executive-a chief operating officer reporting to Hawley-would run the organization, develop a cost accounting system and set performance goals.

"This bill will move the agency toward a businesslike approach [to] operations while encouraging the implementation of state-of-the-art transportation security initiatives," H.R. 4439's sponsor, Rep. Daniel E. Lungren, R-Calif., said at a markup session March 9. It also could help solve long-standing concerns about TSA's dual-some say conflicting-roles as a provider and regulator of security services. "By underscoring the need for serious reform, the bill provides a starting point for fixing the very real problems afflicting airport screening," says Robert W. Poole Jr., an analyst with the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles think tank.

Hawley, who reportedly originated the concept spelled out in H.R. 4439, wasn't available to comment for this article. In a February hearing before Lungren's subcommittee, Hawley noted that headquarters operations already have been restructured to provide a strategic focus and serve as an information resource for each transportation mode. January saw the formation of a new TSA unit to coordinate risk management and threat assessment across the modes.

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