What’s really going on at the TSA — and why should you care?

curtainIs the Transportation Security Administration protecting the nation’s transportation systems? Or is it a hopelessly incompetent federal agency that harasses innocent air travelers and should be privatized as soon as possible?

I brought up the subject in November and after the accidental release of an unredacted TSA manual earlier this week, it seems everyone is talking about it.

So let’s talk about it. Actually, let’s talk with Suzanne Sherwood, who is one of the travelers mystified by the ways of the TSA.

Here’s her story:

They have let me and my companion swap passports — inadvertently — and not noticed that names and photos didn’t match the tickets or us. They have not noticed or questioned my name change. They have confiscated a $66 tube of hand cream, discarded four unopened jars of Ikea lingonberry preserves and a tiny dab of shaving gel because it was in a 5 oz. tube and not a 3 oz. container.

And yet they let a heavy 6-inch jacknife passed through the X-rays unnoticed [in my carry-on].

Keeping us guessing? You bet.

Suzanne knows a thing or two about government bureaucracy. She’s a retired federal employee, and has seen the best — and the worst — of government.

Yes, TSA is inconsistent, unpredictable — to to the point where it drives air travelers crazy. It told me that’s part of the plan. TSA wants to keep the bad guys guessing. That’s understandable.

What isn’t clear to me is why it would allow items that present a clear security risk (like a knife) in someone’s checked luggage. For the answer, I bring in someone who I’ll call TSA Insider:

Most of the screeners I’ve worked with have become very complacent. I used to work in the training department. Most of the screeners would just let the X-ray belt run and not look at the screen. When I approached them about it, they’d said ‘oh well.’

There are a lot of ways things can get through the checkpoints. There is a group that TSA calls the Red Team. They are people that go around the country and test the airports. Most of the time the airports are giving a heads up when the Red Team will be coming around.

Some of the time they get caught. Most of the time they get through.

Look around next time you fly. See how many screeners are young — between the ages of 18 and 24.

In other words, the TSA says this inconsistency is deliberate. But that’s not necessarily true.

Given all that, should you care about airport security in general, and the release of a “secret” TSA manual in particular?

Yes — and no.

Yes, we should be worried about security. It’s confusing. It’s a mess. It can be better, and for what we’re paying for airport security ($2.50 per segment, which will increase to an undisclosed amount in 2012) we deserve better.

But let’s talk about the manual. I covered it earlier this week, and there’s been a lot of hyperventilating in Congress and at least one “passenger rights” group about the issue. This is nothing more than political posturing.

I’ve taken the time to read the entire manual, and I have yet to see one piece of information that puts the air traveler in harm’s way. Here’s how the TSA described the leak on its own blog:

This document was not the everyday screening manual used by Transportation Security Officers at airport checkpoints. Thorough analysis has determined the flying public and aviation community are safe and our systems are secure. TSA is confident that screening procedures in place remain strong.

Now, I hate being spun as much as the next reporter, but I have to tell you that TSA’s blog team has a pretty decent track record for being candid and transparent. If there were a threat, they would have responded differently.

I flew to Washington the day after this story broke, and there was no sign that TSA officers were at a heightened state of readiness. If anything, they looked relaxed.

Air travelers will ultimately judge TSA by one criteria: Nothing happens. No 9/11 repeat. Everything else is details.

Should we be worried? Sure. The agency can run a tighter ship. But it would take another 9/11 to change the TSA.

Let’s hope it never comes to that.

(Photo: Nick Sherman/Flickr Creative Commons)

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