Is the TSA worth saving?

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By Christopher Elliott

If you’re upset by the TSA’s clumsy efforts to protect us from airborne terrorists — and let’s face it, who isn’t? — then you may have missed the good news last week.

Big changes could be coming to America’s least favorite federal agency.

Rep. Paul Broun’s (R-Ga.) calls for TSA Administrator John Pistole’s resignation gained some traction in Washington. Broun has called Pistole “totally incompetent” and believes he and Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano need to be let go.

Not enough, says Sen. Rand Paul (R.-Ky.) who is about to introduce a bill to pull the plug on the entire agency. Paul, who had a scrape with the agency earlier this year, says the agency can’t be salvaged.

“Every inch of our person has become fair game for government thugs posing as security as we travel around the country,” he says.

Government sources indicate that change is underway at the Department of Homeland Security. TSA reportedly plans a significant system-wide reorganization, possibly the largest in airport security since 9/11.

Right now, any change would be welcomed by travelers. It’s difficult to exaggerate the TSA’s misdeeds, from misinterpreting its mandate to protect America’s transportation systems, to arbitrarily removing vital, implicit travel freedoms to which every American is entitled, according to its critics.

What should we do?

Is a system-wide reform — removing Janet Napolitano, John Pistole and restructuring the agency — the right move? Or do we need to eliminate the TSA, once and for all?

Even the most ardent TSA supporters say reform may be necessary. They agree that the agency has become bloated and bureaucratic and overreached its mandate when it began screening motorists and subway commuters, patting down grandmothers and young girls, and subjecting the rest of us to untested X-ray scanners.

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The latest call for reform came this morning from Flight Wisdom, a popular airline blog that isn’t exactly known for taking extreme positions, at least when it comes to airport security. It demanded a makeover of the TSA and suggested that at the very least, Blogger Bob should lose his job. Flight Wisdom says the agency’s mouthpiece, who likes to crack an occasional joke online, isn’t that funny. It’s certainly not alone in that assessment.

But others are taking TSA reform more seriously. Alaska State Rep. Sharon Cissna may be running for Congress on a platform of TSA reform, for example.

“I’ve thought about it a huge amount, and I’ve talked with – gotten letters from more than 2,000 people wanting to talk about that very subject,” she told an Alaska radio station. “Most of them haven’t wanted it to be a big public thing, because it hits people really close.”

What lies ahead

Revamping this beleaguered federal agency may make money sense. Uprooting and rebuilding a transportation security agency after an $8 billion investment would be a colossal waste. (What would they do with all those spiffy blue uniforms?)

Meaningful reform would also send a message to anyone with terrorist intentions: that American airport security wasn’t as big a joke as its critics thought it was, that whatever “security theater” was being performed, it still provided a powerful deterrent. And that yes, it’s fixable.

But that may not be enough for some. Indeed, anyone who has been frisked, scanned or (ahem) subpoenaed by the TSA, may favor a more radical approach. Sen. Paul, with backing from presidential candidate Ron Paul, advocates ending the TSA as the sole solution for its issues. (Here’s our guide to handling the TSA when you travel.)

Specifics of the End TSA bill are still sketchy — it is currently being drafted — but it’s a safe bet that the bill, if passed, would do exactly what it says.

The future of TSA

The Transportation Security “Officers” would disappear from the airport, probably replaced by private security guards. The body scanners would be unplugged and scrapped. The massive government infrastructure that many say is hopelessly corrupt would vanish, and oversight would go to another agency within Homeland Security, perhaps to Customs and Border Protection.

Many TSA critics insist it’s the only acceptable solution, as the agency symbolizes a shameful chapter in our history.

For them, TSA will be always be associated with paranoid secrecy, crime, institutional arrogance, and unnecessarily violent screening methods they’ve described as “gate rape.” They’d abolish the TSA, much like unified Germany ended the Stasi, because it’s beyond redemption.

Change is coming. It must come. And it’s not too soon to also ask if the TSA is worth saving.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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