TSA: Terrible At Security But Finally Willing To Work On Its Problems

from the failing-forward dept

The TSA’s inability to live up to the “S” in its acronym is on display again. The agency’s Inspector General recently testified before a Congressional oversight committee. Fortunately, no one stepped forward to shoot the messenger — seeing as the message was more bad news about TSA incompetence. I imagine TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger would have jumped at the chance to be the triggerman, but was fortunately limited to delivering his own prepared remarks in response.

After speaking to the “difficulty” (apparently insurmountable) of the TSA’s “mission,” Inspector General John Roth referred to the difficult nature (in the parental sense) of the agency itself.

My remarks were described as “unusually blunt testimony from a government witness,” and I will confess that it was. However, those remarks were born of frustration that TSA was assessing risk inappropriately and did not have the ability to perform basic management functions in order to meet the mission the American people expect of it. These issues were exacerbated, in my judgment, by a culture, developed over time, which resisted oversight and was unwilling to accept the need for change in the face of an evolving and serious threat. We have been writing reports highlighting some of these problems for years without an acknowledgment by TSA of the need to correct its deficiencies.

Is the TSA willing to change now? Possibly. But some things haven’t changed, like its ability to do its job. Roth’s office has performed another round of covert testing. Last time this testing was performed, the IG’s fake terrorists nearly aced the test.

However, the latest covert testing wasn’t nearly as “covert,” as Lowering the Bar’s Kevin Underhill points out. But it didn’t go much better.

“In September 2015, we completed and distributed our report on our most recent round of covert testing.” This is where undercover DHS inspectors do stuff like try to smuggle bomb parts through checkpoints, and succeed … let’s see … 96% of the time. Or at least that’s how it’s gone in the past. How about now?

“While I cannot talk about the specifics in this setting [it’s classified, y’all], I am able to say that … the test results were disappointing and troubling,” and were “consistent across every airport” tested. Roth also noted that the tests were conducted by personnel “without any special knowledge or training,” which might seem odd unless you know that the TSA reacted to the earlier 96-percent-failure-rate findings partly by complaining that the IG had used personnel who were specially trained to defeat TSA’s efforts. (You know, sort of like an actual terrorist might be.) So this time, the IG deliberately chose people with no special knowledge or training to carry out its audits. I interpret this to mean that people who basically had no real idea what they were doing consistently and successfully breached security at every airport tested.

While the nuances of transportation security continue to elude the Transportation Security Agency, one thing has changed: an actual reaction from the TSA’s parent agency, the DHS.

The Department’s response to our most recent findings has been swift and definite. For example, within 24 hours of receiving preliminary results of OIG covert penetration testing, the Secretary summoned senior TSA leadership and directed that an immediate plan of action be created to correct deficiencies uncovered by our testing. Moreover, DHS has initiated a program — led by members of Secretary Johnson’s leadership team — to conduct a focused analysis on issues that the OIG has uncovered, as well as other matters. These efforts have already resulted in significant changes to TSA leadership, operations, training, and policy…

You know, the sort of thing the DHS and TSA should have done when similar failings were found in 2014. And 2012. And 2011…

The testimony/rebuttal offered by TSA Administrator Neffenger opens with statements ranging from “factually” to “laughably” false.

We remain deeply committed to ensuring that TSA remains a high-performing, risk-based intelligence-driven counterterrorism organization. We are working diligently to ensure we recruit, train, develop, and lead a mission-ready and highly-capable workforce, placing a premium on professional values and personal accountability.

Or this, which makes the claim that failing nearly 100% of the time proves the system is still effective.

It is important to acknowledge that the OIG covert tests, as a part of their design and execution, focused on only a discrete segment of TSA’s myriad capabilities of detecting and disrupting threats to aviation security. This was not a deliberate test of the entire system and while there were areas for improvement noted by the Inspector General – with which we concurred — that the system as a whole remains effective and, as a result of this series of tests, has only gotten stronger.

Scoring higher against an opponent of a lower skill level (the Average Joe Bomb Carrier “operatives” deployed by the OIG in 2015, rather than the “covert operatives” who performed the 2014 test) doesn’t exactly signal systemic strength. But whatever, it’s the system we have — one we neither want nor deserve.

And then there’s this part of the statement, which could easily support a full-fledged buzzword-based drinking game all on its own.

Solutions to the challenges facing TSA will require a renewed focus on the agency’s security mission, a commitment to right-sizing and resourcing TSA to effectively secure the aviation enterprise, and an industry commitment to incentivizing vetting of passengers as well as creating conditions that can decrease the volume and contents of bags presented for screening in airports.

“Incentivizing vetting of passengers?” Isn’t that pretty much the only task the TSA performs? (I mean, when not running its Instagram account or helping the DEA walk off with a traveler’s money…) After 15 years on the job, you’d think the TSA’s vetting incentive program would be humming away like a well-funded machine. Apparently not, though. As the Inspector General points out, the TSA still approaches airport security in a disturbingly haphazard fashion.

[W]e believe that TSA’s use of risk assessment rules, which granted expedited screening to broad categories of individuals unrelated to an individual assessment of risk, but rather on some questionable assumptions about relative risk based on other factors, created an unacceptable risk to aviation security. Additionally, TSA used “managed inclusion” for the general public, allowing random passengers access to Precheck lanes with no assessment of risk. Additional layers of security TSA intended to provide, which were meant to compensate for the lack of risk assessment, were often simply not present.

While I am still of the belief that a majority of the TSA’s actions are a perversely expensive and intrusive form of pantomime, the least the agency could do is maintain consistency across its security “offerings.” If PreCheck is only “safe” because of the vetting process, then limit it only to those who have been pre-cleared. If 99% of travelers are no threat and can be waved through expeditiously, then do that and ditch the stupid “please throw out your breast milk while your TSA-friendly locks are broken” playacting that keeps lines backed up at security checkpoints.

The TSA has proven it’s far better at officiousness and bureaucracy than security. And for years, it’s been more interested in making excuses than fixing its problems. IG John Roth hopes this is the beginning of the end of the TSA’s abysmal track record. In his comments to the Congressional committee, he expresses his support for the Inspector General Empowerment Act which would, among other things, maintain the office’s independence and force agencies to cough up documents and information in a more timely fashion.

But it’s hard to believe the culture will change. At the TSA, aviation security is just a job — something that only deserves a minimal level of attention or competence. And that’s all we’ll get, for years and years to come: government-mandated harassment that hassles far more travelers than terrorists.

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Comments on “TSA: Terrible At Security But Finally Willing To Work On Its Problems”

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Anonymous Coward says:

We'll make flying FUN

The TSA says: “… as well as creating conditions that can decrease the volume and contents of bags presented for screening in airports.”

It sounds like they’d like us to get on planes WITHOUT any type of carry on — Hell, they’d probably prefer that we didn’t wear any clothing so they would be sure that we aren’t concealing anything — then THEY would be sure that NOTHING is getting by them.

And, they are MUCH in favor of raising carry on bag fees to create “conditions that can decrease the volume” of carry ons.

MikeInMinnesota (profile) says:

It's worse than we thought...

Both the IG and TSA Administrator were spinning the situation in the most positive fashion possible. This gem stands out: “the system as a whole remains effective and, as a result of this series of tests, has only gotten stronger.” In what possible way could the tests themselves result in an improved system? If he had said, “As a result of changes we implemented due to issues uncovered by these tests” then it *might* be credible.

Phil (profile) says:

Just conditioning

After over a decade of this stuff I’m now willing to concede to our conspiracy nut friends that all our anti-terror efforts appear to have accomplished is conditioning people in this country to the kind of “papers please” routine that we were told during the Cold War was what would come if the Soviets “won”. Of course the phrase actually comes from a meme spawned in a somewhat earlier time (go watch the film “Casablanca”). Seems to me that the IG’s office has been doing an outstanding job, but two Presidents and several Congresses have dropped the ball in answer. Just like on 9/11, the fault will lie with our elected representatives, not with the undertrained, undermotivated and underachieving minions manning TSA’s front lines. Politicians talk a good game, but over my lifetime have consistently failed to deliver when we most needed them to. I of course include upper echelon political appointees like the TSA director in the political class, as he is clearly indistinguishable from them.

Jack says:

Re: Just conditioning

It is not a meme from Casablanca…it is a reference to the fact that Nazi Germany didn’t allow freedom of movement and required travel documents. Your documents, “Papiere”, were checked routinely and if the Gestapo were feeling particularly nice may say please, “bitte” – “Papiere Bitte” literally translates to papers please.

Anonymous Coward says:

I am disgusted at the fact that the government spent billions of dollar on something that has already been fixed with locking the pilots door. With a 96% failure rate, they should have shut down the program and start from the beginning. I bet more people had died with that money going to the TSA instead of figuring out better healthcare, housing, education, etc.

DavidMxx (profile) says:

Evidence of security theater

Consider: The TSA confiscates liquids because they might contain liquid explosives or obnoxious chemicals. Yet, it is obvious that they don’t really believe that, since said liquid is normally dumped into a trash can right next to the security point.

If I were a TSA agent and thought that a bottle of liquid might truly be dangerous, I sure as hell wouldn’t drop it into a trash can sitting next to me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Evidence of security theater

“If I were a TSA agent and thought that a bottle of liquid might truly be dangerous, I sure as hell wouldn’t drop it into a trash can sitting next to me.”

An even bigger question is why the TSA even allows trash cans in crowded public areas — such as in the middle of the packed zigzag line of passengers waiting to be screened. If a terrorist (and not even a suicide bomber) wanted to kill as many people as possible …

And it’s not like trash cans have never before been used as hiding places for bombs. It’s happened repeatedly, over many decades, by terrorists in other countries. There’s a simple solution: just move all the trash cans from crowded areas to the outer periphery — or better yet, design bomb-proof ones. Because it’s only a matter of time before these common worldwide terrorist tactics eventually come to America. (And then when it does, all the leaders will throw up their hands and say “How could we have possibly known?” just like they did after 911.)

yankinwaoz (profile) says:

Mission Creep

Here is an idea that might help the TSA. Stop with the mission creep. Focus on doing one thing, and one thing well.

Specially, why is the TSA now involved in drug interdiction and money laundering screening. Even their own blog boasts of finding pot, coke, bongs, etc. I’ve read many stories of TSA agents questioning people who are carrying cash, or seizing it.

So we now have a bunch of illiterate high school dropouts acting as sworn law enforcement officers.

I don’t care that a fellow passenger might have coke in his bag. Or is carrying $15K in $100 notes. And they TSA shouldn’t either.

By limiting the scope of their job to keeping weapons off of airplanes, and NOTHING more, then they might actually get a little better at it.

911 is a Joker says:

Beware those traveling to afganastain..

Or no whatever

” I interpret this to mean that people who basically had no real idea what they were doing consistently and successfully breached security at every airport tested.”

It’s good to know that people with no special training, preparation or knowledge can circumvent the iron security of the TSA.

At least I can rely on my fellow passengers to deal with actual threats.

jraama says:

What the IG tests prove

I think the IG tests prove that, short of everyone flying naked, it is not possible to secure an airport to the level the DHS would like.

I read a tweet the other day which mused which airplane people would prefer to board, one with a TSA checkpoint, or one with a simple metal detector. Airlines should offer both “secured” and “unsecured” planes and let the market decide the path forward.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Now that we know they're incompetent

Can disband the TSA and try something else?

How often do we have attacks on airplanes anyway? From what I hear we’ve lost more lives by the increase in road accidents due to people avoiding air travel specifically to avoid the TSA check process.

(Myself, I found the poofer hilarious. The shoe passthrough was tedious, the liquids restriction was inconvenient and all the guys who think I’m either a criminal or a chump they want to rob is damn uncomfortable.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Now that we know they're incompetent

“How often do we have attacks on airplanes anyway?”

Assuming that the recently downed Russian airliner was from a smuggled bomb and not some freak accident, it would seem about once per decade, in the West. That’s not counting that rash of incidents that occurred in the late 1960s & early 1970s, when there were barely any security measures of any kind. Also not counting shootdowns by military forces, such as the US Navy shooting down an Iranian airliner in 1988 and then saying “OOPS!”

Steve (profile) says:

Just as the invasion of Iraq was about oil & cybersecurity is about information control, airport security is another component of social control that is being slowly ramped up. Governments (if you can still call them that)
know these will be necessary to control the coming revolt arising from climate change, peak oil & the ability of citizens to organise using the internet.

Personanongrata says:

From Citizen to Serf in Three Easy Steps

TSA most important function after creating the illusion of security is to condition the American people into accepting ever greater amounts of US government intrusion into their lives.

T.S.A. Expands Duties Beyond Airport Security

By RON NIXONAUG. 5, 2013

With little fanfare, the agency best known for airport screenings has vastly expanded its reach to sporting events, music festivals, rodeos, highway weigh stations and train terminals.


Eldakka (profile) says:

Incentivizing vetting of passengers?

“Incentivizing vetting of passengers?” Isn’t that pretty much the only task the TSA performs? (I mean, when not running its Instagram account or helping the DEA walk off with a traveler’s money…) After 15 years on the job, you’d think the TSA’s vetting incentive program would be humming away like a well-funded machine. Apparently not, though.

I think you are drawing the wrong conclusion from that statement. To me, that jargon/buzzword statement is actually a statement regarding MORALE. It’s implying morale is low and staff don’t care about what/why they are doing the work. They are drones just ticking the boxes on the paperwork.

1. something that incites or tends to incite to action or greater effort, as a reward offered for increased productivity.
2. inciting, as to action; stimulating; provocative.

They’re saying that they’ve gotta increase the morale of their staff so they CARE about the vetting, so that they do more than blindly, unthinkingly follow the procedures. Sp that they actively look for suspicious people rather than just being a drone ticking the boxes.

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