How did an agency created to protect the public become the target of so much public scorn?
After nine years of funneling travelers into ever longer lines with orders to have shoes off, sippy cups empty and laptops out for inspection, the most surprising thing about increasingly heated frustration with the federal Transportation Security Administration may be that it took so long to boil over.
Even Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is not subjected to security pat-downs when she travels, understands the public’s irritation. She, for one, wouldn’t want to go through such scrutiny.
The agency, a marvel of nearly instant government when it was launched in the fearful months following the 9/11 terror attacks, started out with a strong measure of public goodwill. Americans wanted the assurance of safety when they boarded planes and entrusted the government with the responsibility.
But in episode after episode since then, the TSA has demonstrated a knack for ignoring the basics of customer relations, while struggling with what experts say is an all but impossible task. It must stand as the last line against unknown terror, yet somehow do so without treating everyone from frequent business travelers to the family heading home to visit grandma as a potential terrorist.
The TSA “is not a flier-centered system. It’s a terrorist-centered system and the travelers get caught in it,” said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University who has tracked the agency’s effectiveness since it’s creation.
That built-in conflict is at the heart of a growing backlash against the TSA for ordering travelers to step before a full-body scanner that sees through their clothing, undergo a potentially invasive pat-down or not fly at all.
“After 9/11 people were scared and when people are scared they’ll do anything for someone who will make them less scared,” said Bruce Schneier, a Minneapolis security technology expert who has long been critical of the TSA. “But … this is particularly invasive. It’s strip-searching. It’s body groping. As abhorrent goes, this pegs it.”
A traveler in San Diego, John Tyner, has become an Internet hero after resisting both the scan and the pat-down, telling a TSA screener: “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested.” That has helped ignite a campaign urging people to refuse such searches on Nov. 24, which immediately precedes Thanksgiving and is one of the year’s busiest travel days.
The outcry, though, “is symptomatic of a bigger issue,” said Geoff Freeman, executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, an industry group that says it has received nearly 1,000 calls and e-mails from consumers about the new policy in the last week.
“It’s almost as if it’s a tipping point,” Freeman said. “What we’ve heard from travelers time and again is that there must be a better way.”
Indeed, TSA has a history of stirring public irritation. There was the time in 2004 when Sen. Ted Kennedy complained after being stopped five times while trying to board planes because a name similar to his appeared on the agency’s no-fly list. And the time in 2006 when a Maine woman went public with her tale of being ordered by a TSA agent to dump the gel packs she was using to cool bags of breast milk. And the time in 2007, when a Washington, D.C. woman charged that another TSA agent threatened to have her arrested for spilling water out of her child’s sippy cup.
TSA denied the last, releasing security camera footage to try and prove its point. But that did little to offset the agency’s longtime struggle to explain itself and win traveler cooperation.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After Congress approved creation of the agency in late 2001, the TSA grew quickly from just 13 employees in January 2002 to 65,000 a year later. In the first year, agency workers confiscated more than 4.8 million firearms, knives and other prohibited items, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
But even as the new agency mushroomed, officials at the top, pressured by airlines worried that tighter security would discourage people from flying, looked to the business world for lessons on systems, efficiency and service.
TSA set up “go teams” pairing government employees with executives from companies including Marriott International Inc., The Walt Disney Co., and Intel Corp., to figure out how to move lines of people through checkpoints efficiently and how to deal with angry travelers.
But the agency was working under what Freeman calls “an unachievable mandate.” Congress demanded an agency that eliminated risk. But the risks are always changing, as terrorists devise new methods and government parries. That has led to an agency that is always in crisis mode, constantly adding new policies designed to respond to the last terror plot.
President Barack Obama says he has pushed the TSA to make sure that it is always reviewing screening processes with actual people in mind. “You have to constantly refine and measure whether what we’re doing is the only way to assure the American people’s safety,” Obama said Saturday. “And you also have to think through, are there ways of doing it that are less intrusive.”
Clinton, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said Sunday she thought “everyone, including our security experts, are looking for ways to diminish the impact on the traveling public.”
But John Pistole of the Transportation Security Administration said on CNN’s “State of the Union” that the current threat level is too high to lessen the use of full body scans and intimate pat-downs. He said the ingenuity and determination of terrorists trying to bring down an airplane ruled out changes in screening policies.
TSA operates on the belief that a key to foiling terrorists is to keep them guessing, agency watchers say. But it has never really explained that to a flying public that sees never-ending changes in policies covering carry-on liquids, shoes, and printer cartridges as maddening and pointless inconsistency.
“If you ask what its procedures are, how you screen people, its ‘I can’t tell you that because if the bad guys find out they’ll be able to work around the system’,” said Christopher Elliott, an Orlando, Fla.-based consumer advocate specializing in travel. “That’s why a lot of what they’ve done has not really gone over well with air travelers. They perceive it as being heavy-handed and often the screeners come across as being very authoritarian.”
Over time, TSA has settled into a pattern of issuing directives with little explanation and expecting they be followed. But increasingly fed-up travelers don’t understand the agency’s sense of urgency and aren’t buying it.
“I don’t think the law enforcement approach is going to work with the American public. You’ve got to explain yourself and reassure people. And they’re not doing it,” Light said.
That goes beyond public relations, experts say. As more and more layers are added to air travel security efforts, it creates difficult and potentially unpopular choices. But the TSA has been unwilling to openly discuss how it arrives at policies or to justify the trade-offs, highlighted by its insistence over the need for the scanners.
“They’re very expensive and what they (TSA officials) should be able to do is answer if it does reduce the risk, how much does it reduce the risk and is it worth it?” said John Mueller, a professor of political science at Ohio State, who has researched the way society reacts to terrorism.
The pushback against the body scanners and pat-downs shows the agency at its worst, Elliott said, issuing a policy that wasn’t properly vetted or explained, but determined to defend it.
Growing dissatisfaction with TSA has even led some airports to consider replacing the agency with private screeners. Such a change is allowed by law, but the contractor must follow all the security procedures mandated by the TSA, including body scans and pat-downs.
But frustration with the TSA was building even before the latest furor. In a December 2007 Associated Press-Ipsos poll asking Americans to rank government agencies, it was as unpopular as the Internal Revenue Service. Even so, a poll earlier this month by CBS News found 81 percent of Americans support the TSA’s use of full-body scanners at airports. The poll, conducted Nov. 7-10, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Elliott said that better communication would probably win the TSA more cooperation. But the public irritation suggests that a growing number of consumers, particularly frequent travelers, are questioning the premise at the heart of the agency’s existence.
“I think at some point Americans said to themselves, maybe in their collective subconscious … there’s a line here where it’s not just worth it anymore,” he said. “There’s a growing sense that that line has been crossed.”
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