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October 20, 2016

Troubling Security Agency

If the TSA is serious about public safety, then it needs to make some major changes

Most out-of-state students are probably accustomed to the egregiously long and cumbersome security lines at the airport. Considering we’re on the quarter system, students will have to go through the uncomfortable pat downs and invasive scanners up to six times in a single school year. While most of us hate these dreaded airport encounters, we put up with it anyway. It’s all in the name of national security, right? Wrong. Statistically speaking, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is abysmal at doing its job. Last year, undercover homeland security agents disguised themselves as passengers and were able to smuggle fake weapons and explosives through security checkpoints at many airports throughout the country. A staggering 95 percent of them went through. Let that sink in. $7.6 billion a year to help stop terrorism. $7.6 billion a year to ensure that people can fly safely. $7.6 billion a year and it can’t even catch a few knives and bombs. 

Of course, the organization was quick to remove its acting administrator, Melvin Carraway, after that news broke. But, while a change in leadership is a much-needed step in improving the TSA, it is far from enough. If anything, this alarming and inexcusable failure sheds light on the dire need to improve airport security. If we’re going to spend $7.6 billion per year to keep people safe during their flights, then we ought to do the job effectively. Conventional security measures are costly, ineffective, and aggravating for passengers to deal with.

A major reason behind the TSA’s failure is its faulty detection equipment. Since 2008, the TSA has spent $2.1 billion on new body scanners. A quarter of this budget was spent on x-ray machines that allowed operators to see people naked. According to former TSA employee Jason Harrington, “the scanners were useless… and supervisors instructed [employees] to begin patting down the sides of every fifth passenger as a clumsy workaround to the scanners’ embarrassing vulnerability.” Many machines are prone to malfunction, subject to frequent glitches, and even give false alarms. Congress reported that the TSA experienced more than 25,000 breaches since its inception in 2001.

The machines aren’t the only faulty part of the entire TSA system. The actual agents seem inept and unequipped to truly sense a national threat. When I landed in Newark Airport from London earlier this summer, I spent two hours waiting in line for customs as the department was wildly understaffed. When it was finally my turn, a TSA employee spent less than one minute asking me basic questions such as why I left the U.S. and how long I was gone. Before I knew it, the next person was called. Traveling to London, I also had a very similar experience with customs, where I was interrogated for half a minute on easy questions. Airport security determined that I wasn’t a terrorist by asking me where I went for vacation! There are many reasons other than the long wait time that make this a major problem. What good are customs when the rigor of questioning is so low that people can make up a believable answer on the spot? Surely, an operative from ISIS isn’t going to admit to planning to bomb Times Square at the airport.

It is aggravating to see that billions of dollars are being spent on an organization that can’t do its job properly. That being said, there are many ways in which it can be improved. There are two options moving forward: stop squandering millions of dollars on ineffective equipment and use cheaper machines that accurately detect common weapons, or just invest in equipment that actually works. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson proposed to have simple metal detectors installed at security checkpoints due to body scanners’ ineffectiveness. At least that way, somebody can’t smuggle a knife by hiding it on their sides.

What the TSA also needs is an administration that understands how terrorists operate. For this reason, it should take special effort to hire people who used to work in the intelligence community, particularly counterterrorism, for their expertise and experience in the field. Along those same lines, travelers should be required to provide substantive personal information when purchasing plane tickets. This information would then be passed onto the intelligence community for further analysis so potential terrorists could be screened before they even arrive at an airport. 

The TSA was born more than a decade ago in order to prevent another event like 9/11. While no disaster of that magnitude has happened in this country since, it would be foolish to let the TSA continue what it is doing. The terrorist attacks at the Brussels and Istanbul airports are examples of what could go wrong if our security remains in such a vulnerable state. Our safety depends on its effectiveness, and we need to ensure that it does its job right.

Brian Dong is a first-year in the College majoring in political science.

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