The problem-plagued Transportation Security Administration is a study in bureaucratic ineptitude. Since 2002, TSA has spent more than $795 million on new air-passenger screening technologies. Despite this massive expenditure and the passage of seven years, the agency has not deployed the technology and isn't even sure any of the 10 new systems can address the greatest threats. According to a recent investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), there may not be any benefit from any of this any time soon.
Along with the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate, TSA is responsible for researching and deploying new technologies aimed at making air travel safer. With systems mired in various phases of development, not a single new screening technology has been fully implemented nationwide.
GAO auditors found that TSA has not applied any risk analysis or cost-benefit analysis to ensure the effectiveness or need of the new technologies. GAO said that TSA doesn't even have "reasonable assurance that technologies will perform as intended."
Due diligence is required by the agency's own technology-development guidelines. While TSA claims that steps have been taken to "strengthen testing procedures and improve the strategic deployment of emerging technologies," as of September, a repeatedly delayed internal risk-analysis test remains unfinished with no timeline for completion. TSA can't provide a timetable for beginning cost-benefit analyses or for creating performance measures for its new technologies.
The findings are hardly surprising. The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general has documented serious passenger- and baggage-screening failures and insufficient tracking of airport security passes and uniforms of former employees. In tests to evaluate airport-screener performance, GAO officials were able to sneak low-yield detonators, explosives and incendiary devices onto planes.
Despite TSA's troubled history, the response from Congress continues to be anemic. One pending House bill would actually give collective-bargaining power to failing airport screeners. Giving labor more power would undermine the already poor screener-performance record by lowering standards. More than 50 percent failed the agency's skills test this year, but the screeners' unions maintain that the problem is the test itself.
Responding to GAO's findings, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat, expressed support for TSA's technology efforts with the meager qualifier that he is committed to working with Homeland Security to come up with a strategic plan. However, first-ever TSA policy legislation from his panel approved by the House in June was drafted without significant input from agency personnel, authorizing $15.7 billion for two years of agency operations.
TSA needs close oversight to make sure the agency is doing its job to make air travel safer. But unless someone wakes slumbering congressional Democrats at the legislative checkpoint, nothing will change.