TSA Watch: How good could this agency really be?

On this Independence Day weekend, with a week’s worth of truly outrageous TSA news behind us, I think it’s time to ask a simple “What if?” question: How good could this agency be? And what would it take to get it there?

Some have suggested the entire TSA should be eliminated (I have a time or two) but let’s say, for argument’s sake, that instead of defunding this dysfunctional federal agency and sending its 58,401 employees packing, it’s reformed under the next administration.

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Here’s how the events of the last week might have gone down.

The adult diaper incident.
TSA allegedly pats down a cancer-stricken, 95-year-old mother and forces her to remove her adult diaper while going through security at Northwest Florida Regional Airport. The agency says she was properly screened but denies it would ask anyone to remove an adult diaper. Regardless of what actually happened, it seems the TSA identified a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair as a potential security threat.

What should have happened: Common sense tells you that grannies in wheelchairs don’t pack explosives. You don’t even need a profiling system to know this — just think. Maybe a reformed TSA would allow its agents to do that.

The cancer clusters.
Turns out those full-body scanners may not be as safe as the TSA claimed. New documents released last week raise new questions about the radiation risks posed by the machines. They suggest the government misled the public about the safety of scanners and that the devices could exceed the general safety limits. TSA denies the scanners are dangerous.

What should have happened: TSA never should have used full-body scanners in the first place. They were improperly tested and acted primarily as a psychological deterrent to potential terrorists. (I’ve repeatedly asked TSA for a list of terrorist incidents the machines have stopped, and have received no answer.) If the most effective airport security screeners in the world can do security without the scanners, then so can we. A reformed TSA would eliminate these devices — immediately.

The boarding pass incident.
Oluwaseun Noibi, 24, reportedly boarded a flight in New York last week using an expired boarding pass with someone else’s name on it. The flight crew didn’t even realize there was a stowaway on the plane until halfway through the flight, when they realized they had an extra passenger in a premium seat. TSA insists Noibi was screened properly but that it didn’t “properly authenticate the passenger’s documentation.”

What should have happened: Come on. Even before the TSA existed, this kind of thing would have made the news. The agency’s explanation (“We screened him but didn’t authenticate his documentation”) smacks of agency double-speak. A reformed TSA would take responsibility for its shortcomings and not rely on machines to do the job of screeners.

We can probably all agree that the TSA needs to be reformed. But at whose expense? Last week, the US Travel Association released a survey that suggests a significant majority of frequent business and leisure travelers would pay up to $150 to enroll in a “trusted traveler” program that would allow them to skip the invasive pat-downs and body scanners.

I think US Travel is asking the wrong question. We’ve already paid for any trusted traveler program, through taxes and 9/11 security fees. Will I shell out another $750 a year for my family of five to avoid having its dignity violated? Hell, no. My government trusts me to pay taxes and obey the laws of the land. Maybe it can see itself clear to also figure out that I won’t blow up my next flight without forcing me to pay extra.

There can be no meaningful reform with the current administration and its appointees in place. Maybe the first step to fixing the TSA is to elect a new administration in 2012.

I’m not sure if I like any of the current choices.

Photo: Anthony Citrano/Flickr Creative Commons